Every era needs its prophets

Patricia Piccinini: Curious Affection
QAGOMA, Brisbane

I have grown past hate and bitterness,
I see the world as one;
But though I can no longer hate,
My son is still my son.
All men at God’s round table sit,
And all men must be fed;
But this loaf in my hand,
This loaf is my son’s bread.

- Nationality, Mary Gilmore

All life is precious. But each of us has an in-built scale that determines what particular lives are more precious. Whether we are aware of it or not, each of us estimates the comparable value of particular life-forms through variables that include the time we are born into, the cultural frameworks we use to make decisions, the religious or political or ideological creeds we adhere to, among a raft of other factors.

There are, however, trends that persist across the differences of creed, culture and communal beliefs. Australian poet Mary Gilmore, for example, (she is featured on the other side of Banjo Patterson on the Australian ten-dollar note) was a pacifist deeply opposed to the taking of life. But no matter her embrace of the credos of egalitarianism, of rationality, of anti-violence, her poem Nationality, written in 1942 during the Second World War, is a paean to that short, sharp, self-aware realisation that all the convictions of faith, all the certitudes of conceptual analysis, all the intellectual rigour of impartial rationalist thought, fall to one side when faced with the visceral call of blood-ties. At the time of writing, Gilmore’s world was being torn apart; her poem belies the contradictions of yearning for a sense of global connectedness while acknowledging the deep unwavering connections of genetic networks.

In today’s world, experiences of fracturing and connection are erupting like legion through a number of ways other than that of war—ethical dilemmas about the sanctity of life leak through the fissures caused by the collision of environmental crises with technological and scientific advancement. And while many of the ethical dilemmas may currently seem to lie somewhere ‘out there’, in the zone where scientists make decisions about the use of stem cells, trans-species genetic experimentation or which species should be abandoned for the inevitability of extinction (species triage), closer to home each of us ponders choices that include how genetic engineering might be modifying our food, our medical choices and choices with regard to how we are born and how and when we die.

Patricia Piccinini is an artist whose understanding of the pull of blood-ties was evident in the title of her exhibition that represented Australia in the 2003 Biennale of Venice. Titled We Are Family, the show featured a raft of possible, if incongruous, family groupings, and there was barely a family visiting the Biennale that year who did not tote the Australian Pavilion bag emblazoned with the image of the artist’s sculptural cluster titled The Young Family—a reclining, beatific transgenic mother suckling her three offspring.
Piccinini’s Curious Affection at Brisbane’s QAGOMA (Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art) extends the concept of how we might recognise ‘blood-ties’ even further, and this exhibition of sculpture, photography, video, drawing and large-scale installations goes way beyond the imagery conjured by Mary Gilmore’s vignette. Every era needs artists who can present options that seem impossible at the time of their production. Piccinini presents us with trans-species blended family members that range from pulsing cellular clusters to visceral, nascent, fleshly blobs, to hybridised humanoid mutations. At times they appear more animal than human, at other times they appear as humans on whom some extreme form of genetic engineering has been applied. Still other creatures appear to have coalesced from the pages of a sci-fi fairy-tale. The thing they share in common is that they somehow manage to transcend our horror of their otherness with a quiet, even dignified plea to be cared for; to be respected; to be loved.

If the challenge to Gilmore’s generation was to imagine ‘others’ as part of a family of man at a time when the crisis of global warfare threatened to change the world forever, then the challenge for Piccinini’s generation, in an era where the juggernaut advance of bio-technology meets environmental crisis head-on, is to imagine the possibility that respect for life must go beyond that of the human.

The exhibition occupies the two ground-floor spaces of GOMA—the same spaces given over to the blockbuster Marvel: Creating the Cinematic Universe between May and December in 2017. The Marvel show drew in huge audiences to witness and become immersed in the vignettes, tableaux and interactive installations of the franchise’s famous parallel universes.

However, it is fair to say that the exhibition’s commercial success was not matched by its critical success; criticism of QAGOMA’s decision to take on a show that clearly promoted cultural production that is overwhelmingly driven by the demands of consumerist-driven mass-market appeal abounded. As a response and a salve, the following exhibitions—featuring the work of pedigreed international art-world ‘heavy hitters’ Yayoi Kusama and Gerhard Richter—seemed to breathe hope that the state galleries do not always respond to corporate demands, populism or government-driven objectives alone.

Following hot on the heels of these solo international ‘blockbusters’, Strange Affection is the first major survey exhibition of the work of this Australian artist who has received such significant international attention. In that sense, it feels good that an Australian State Gallery is backing its own. It is lazy and mistaken to believe that the best art happens overseas. However, there may be a danger that Curious Affection, with its meticulously created other-worldly creatures and immersive, technologically savvy scapes, could be seen as the ‘art-world’ extension of Marvel’s improbable universes. There is a whiff of Grand Guignol that hovers around the edges of this new major showcase: while Piccinini’s work has often worked its magic in group exhibitions through the surprise of juxtaposition—the fact that pieces of her work suddenly seem to appear to offer a space that is both continuous and discontinuous from the forms that surround it—this survey exhibition presents room after room as a series of vignettes from Piccinini’s bestiary as they frolic and recoil and mimic and meditate in a universe all their own. Into this world the viewers appear as oddities, and the experience of viewing the work is as much about seeing the particular strangeness of being that each of us carries with us into the spaces.

In an era obsessed with depilation, it becomes clear that many of Piccinini’s creatures draw their magnet of repulsion/attraction through their artifice of all kinds of meticulously rendered hair, while the more glabrous forms work their seduction/revulsion through the precise formation of their orificial detailing. There are bum holes, vaginas, folds and the promise of fecundity in abundance. So there is an unease to playing the role of spectator in this show—we are invited to peer all-too-closely into moments of lachrymose tenderness, or at physical and emotional exposure, or simply to the details of revealed intimacies. We would do well to be concerned, from time to time, about the motives of our fascination. Why are we so keen to peer at the strangeness of their ‘otherness’? Or is it that we are really simply fascinated about the craftsmanship of the artistry? Or are we drawn by the need to understand the artists intention? In such productive anxieties, there are layers to our intrigue that lie well beyond the simple seeking out of recognition that drives visits to survey the waxwork effigies at Madame Tussaud’s.

The difficult subject-matter of this exhibition walks along a fine line stretched taut above the triple pits of either sensationalism, or a particularly Baroque predisposition to pseudo-sci-fi-entific illustrativeness, or a needlessly visually didactic form of ethicism. And if it succeeds in its mastery of staying aloft, it is because of the artist’s keen awareness of brinkmanship—of just how far—and how often—it is possible to push the audience into a recoil from which they can be re-lured. So many of Piccinini’s creations are memorable. So many have already snuck their way into how we think about new possibilities for recognising sentience—and so many whisper the miracle that it might just be possible to love any living thing.

Patricia Piccinini: Curious Affection. Installation view, Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2018, featuring The Couple, 2018. Photograph Natasha Harth, QAGOMA.

Installation view Patricia Piccinini: Curious Affection. Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2018. Photograph Natasha Harth, QAGOMA.

Patricia Piccinini, Kindred, 2017. Ed. 1 of 3. Silicone, fibreglass, hair, 103 x 95 x 128cm. Courtesy the artist, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne; Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney; and Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco.