Patricia Piccinini talks about her practice, her connection to Canberra and the Skywhale commission.
A: I am interested in what it means to be human in a world of genetic engineering and biotechnology, as well as how these technologies change the relationship between people and nature. The world I create exists somewhere between the one we know and one that is almost upon us. However, what I imagine is neither the nightmare future of environmental ruin nor the brave new world of perfect scientific progress. Instead I focus on the internal, emotional lives of the new creatures that might emerge, along with questions about the kinds of relationships that might come to light along side them. My creatures, while strange and unsettling, are not threatening. Instead, it is their vulnerability that most often comes to the fore. They plead with us to look beyond their unfamiliarity, and ask us to accept them. It is surprising how quickly we grow used to them, which reminds us that this sort of thing is not as far in the future as we might think. We are surrounded by hidden genetic engineering and biotechnology in our food and our animals already. My world is one of questions rather than answers. I do not tell the viewer what to think about genetic engineering, but instead I ask them how they feel when confronted by possibilities.
A: It is hard to pin down key points, as evolution is often quite a gradual thing. However, there have been a few exhibitions and works that do feel quite pivotal. In the early 1990s I made my first photographs and created my first new creatures and beings using computers. This marked my realisation that art was not just what I could do with my own hands, but was more about what I could imagine. This idea has underpinned the way I work since that time. In 1999 I completed 'Truck Babies' which was by far the most ambitious sculptural project I had ever done. The scale and complexity of the objects gave me a sense of what was possible in my practice and gave me the confidence to try to create even more challenging work. In 2001, for an exhibition in the wombat enclosure at the Melbourne Zoo, I worked with animatronic specialists to create the first realistic sculpture based on one of my creatures. In 2002 I produced 'Still Life With Stem Cells', which was my first really hyper-realistic sculpture. This work went on to be part of my We Are Family exhibition for the Australian Pavillion at the Venice Biennale. At that point, my work had often focused on issues around biotechnology and genetic engineering. In the subsequent years my work has become a little bit broader in its themes and I have set up my own studio, with an amazing group of technicians who work with me to achieve my visions. Working with my own studio has given me an even broader scope and my work now ranges across more media – from bronze and drawing to hyper-realistic sculptures and video, even this balloon – and my imagery has become more mature. I just completed a solo exhibition in London, and that included work that was more surreal, and perhaps a little more relaxed and confident, which feels like the direction I am working towards now.
A: I think you have to say that my work is characterised by its sincerity. This is a strangely unusual thing in much contemporary art, which is often very ironic or deliberately baffling. I feel an enormous emotional connection to my work, and I am very protective of it. I am often surprised when people tell me that they find my work difficult of unsettling. It is hard for me to imagine than anyone would find anything I do 'shocking'. I guess I do have a broader sense of what is beautiful than is often found in mainstream culture, because I do find the works I create beautiful. I think it would be very easy to make my work scary, but I don't believe people think very well when they are scared, and what I want to give them is something to think about. What does make me happy is when somebody tells me how their feelings for one of my creatures changed from disquiet to fondness as they got to know it. That is what I really love to hear. There is a narrative of tolerance in my work which is really key to what I do.
A: I would like to show people things that they might not otherwise see or think of. However, these things are not just flights of fancy; they connect to ideas and issues that are relevant to the real world. What I hope, is that they inspire people to think and to talk. Even if it is only to wonder at what they just saw, and perhaps smile about it or discuss it with a friend. I would love it if people would look at the Skywhale and wonder if it might actually be possible. It might inspire them to think about all the other incredible things that exist in nature. Is the Skywhale any more amazing than a real whale?
A: I don't really want to tell people what exactly to think about the Skywhale. That is very much up to them. I am much more interested to hear their ideas. On one level, this is very much a work about wonder, about showing people something extraordinary that floats in and out of their day and leaves them pondering over what they just saw.
On another level, Skywhale for me is something of a meditation on nature and evolution, which are two things that fascinate me. The story of the evolution of the whale is of particular interest to me. Firstly because the blue whale is the biggest creature that ever lived, as far as we know. They are far bigger than any dinosaur we know of. In fact, no one has ever even weighed a whole. They are just too big. However, 50 million years ago whales were small dog-like mammals with hoofs called pakicetidae. Somehow they went back to the sea and became huge and intelligent. That is just amazing to me. Of course, pakicetidae are descended from the first creatures that dragged themselves out from the ocean. So, we have this amazing journey over millions of years from the ocean to the land and back. In that context, the idea that the journey could have ended in the air, with a creature like the Skywhale, is not so ridiculous.
Perhaps the Skywhale is a genetically modified creature or perhaps it is some undiscovered species, or perhaps it is something mythological and entirely symbolic. I think that is up to the viewer. I do think that whatever she is, she is a benign and wonderful presence.
A: I hope that she can be source of joy and wonder; that she can just fly and fly and fly.