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With Cu­rios Imag­in­ings, Aus­tralian artist Pa­tri­cia Pic­cinini brings her strangely beau­ti­ful mu­tants to the rooms of the Pa­tri­cia Ho­tel; plus, the sea­son's per­form­ers to watch, crit­ics' picks, and more

The Georgia Straight - - Front Page - BY JANET SMITH

She’s a mu­tant and a mis­take. She is an aber­ra­tion—a crea­ture who falls some­where be­tween orang­utan and hu­man, a mis­guided DNA ex­per­i­ment. And yet you can see the beauty in her. You’re drawn to this orange-haired crea­ture, with her gen­tle brown eyes. There is love in the way she reaches one pink-skinned, op­pos­able-thumbed hand up to a pale hu­man baby climb­ing up the back of her shoul­der, the other clutch­ing an ape­like in­fant to her chest.

The sculp­ture is called Kin­dred, one of the hy­per­real cre­ations Pa­tri­cia Pic­cinini is bring­ing here as part of the up­com­ing ex­hibit Cu­ri­ous Imag­in­ings, spread over 18 rooms of the Pa­tri­cia Ho­tel. Us­ing sil­i­cone, fi­bre­glass, and real hair, the Aus­tralian art star and her team con­jure hu­man-an­i­mal hy­brids that both at­tract and re­pel. With them, Pic­cinini seeks to tap view­ers’ “em­pa­thetic imag­i­na­tion”, she tells the Straight in an in­ter­view from her Mel­bourne stu­dio as she gets ready to head here for her Van­cou­ver Bi­en­nale show­ing. “That’s an in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful thing to en­gage,” the acutely ar­tic­u­late artist says with pal­pa­ble pas­sion. “To do that is a del­i­cate bal­ance. If you look at my work, there’s al­ways an el­e­ment of beauty that draws you in—for ex­am­ple the hu­man eyes. There’s even a sense of sen­tience, and that brings you in. But it also pushes you away be­cause it’s an aber­ra­tion, a mon­ster, not some­thing you know. And we’re kind of hard-wired to be that wary of dif­fer­ence.

“So that push-pull opens up a space in the viewer to ask ‘What do I feel here? What do I think here?’ ”

Your first re­ac­tion to see­ing her strange mam­mals, with their eerily life­like hair fol­li­cles, wrin­kles, and faint blue veins, might be a mix of alarm and em­pa­thy. But the sculp­tures carry deeper po­lit­i­cal and en­vi­ron­men­tal mean­ing as well.

The most ob­vi­ous is­sue Pic­cinini ex­plores is our fid­dling with ge­net­ics and biotech­nol­ogy. One sculp­ture, The Young Fam­ily, de­picts hu­man-hog hy­brids, a mother with curled pink toes in­stead of hooves, her ba­bies suck­ling at her teats. Pic­cinini has said it’s in­spired by the idea of ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied pigs be­ing bred to pro­vide or­gans to hu­mans.

“It’s ob­vi­ously changed—it’s not hu­man, it’s not an­i­mal, it’s some­thing in be­tween,” she ex­plains. “And we ask our­selves, ‘Is this nat­u­ral? Is this part of evo­lu­tion, and how do I feel about it? Should it serve us or does it de­serve our love?’ ”

Pic­cinini is fas­ci­nated by the nat­u­ral world, and by the ever-grow­ing threats against it. But she is still work­ing out her own feel­ings on how much we should be able to al­ter na­ture for hu­man needs.

Her work Kin­dred refers to en­dan­gered orang­utans, whose habi­tat is disappearing, pur­posely ask­ing us to re­late to them. “When we look at this work, we’re in her pres­ence and she looks at us back,” Pic­cinini ex­plains. “She’s al­low­ing us to ex­pe­ri­ence her vul­ner­a­bil­ity while we ex­pe­ri­ence her strength and beauty. We say, ‘Oh, she has one child more hu­man than her and an­other that is com­pletely hu­man.’ But the work is not about that dif­fer­ence. It’s about their con­nec­tion and that’s what gives her strength. That’s what gives life some­times to a mo­ment of elu­ci­da­tion and you go, ‘Oh yeah, they are a lot like us.’

“All of my work is about our duty of care to the na­ture we have around us,” she stresses. “So I ask the ques­tion, ‘When we cre­ate new life— and it’s not sci­ence fic­tion any­more, it ac­tu­ally is hap­pen­ing—what will that life be and what place in our lives will it take and what will our re­la­tion­ship be to it?’ ”

FOR HER VAN­COU­VER SHOW, Pic­cinini has cre­ated a new merged be­ing called The Builder— this time a hu­manoid beaver, in a nod to the im­por­tant en­vi­ron­men­tal tasks Canada’s na­tional an­i­mal han­dles. As ever, the deep re­search the artist has done into her sub­ject shows.

“I’m ab­so­lutely en­am­oured by the idea that they’re land care­tak­ers,” Pic­cinini en­thuses. “The dams they build are very im­por­tant to how the land is nur­tured and, in fact, the way they re­tain wa­ter in dif­fer­ent spa­ces can even help in times of drought.”

She hopes mu­tants like The Builder will prompt peo­ple to move be­yond a sense of doom about our planet.

“I read a lot of lit­er­a­ture around the en­vi­ron­ment and I find this lit­er­a­ture re­ally, re­ally over­whelm­ing. And I do feel quite de­spon­dent,” Pic­cinini ad­mits. “I’m not op­ti­mistic. I don’t think ev­ery­thing is go­ing to be all right. But I’m hope­ful. Even though things are dark, I am hope­ful we can get through all this to­gether—and it has

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Kin­dred,

to be born out of a kind of feel­ing of be­ing able to value other crea­tures and need­ing to re­late to them. I don’t think my works em­body the so­lu­tions; I don’t think we’re go­ing to make these spe­cific crea­tures and I don’t think we should.”

PIC­CININI IS EVEN more in­trigued by the new lay­ers of mean­ing Cu­ri­ous Imag­in­ings’ un­ex­pected, non­mu­seum set­ting here—east Hastings Street’s Pa­tri­cia Ho­tel— will bring to her sculp­tures. She is in­stalling them in no­tice­ably livedin rooms. The set­ting will feel in­ti­mate, pri­vate, and do­mes­tic, with a chance for au­di­ences to gaze at her crea­tures close up.

Again, Pic­cinini turns to Kin­dred to il­lus­trate. “What does this mean for her to be in this par­tic­u­lar ho­tel? Is she a refugee? Is she home­less? So I think there’s a sort of rich space for that,” she ob­serves. “It’s like the crea­tures have just in­hab­ited the rooms nat­u­rally. And what do ho­tels mean? Some­times they mean a hol­i­day, some­times lux­ury, some­times a place to be when you don’t have a home. Some­times they’re a place you’re mov­ing through when you don’t have a space of your own. So there’s this nar­ra­tive built be­tween the art­work and the viewer and me. And the viewer’s back­ground will af­fect the mean­ing.”

Cu­ri­ous Imag­in­ings, in fact, marks the first time Pic­cinini’s sculp­tures will be seen out­side of a mu­seum or gallery, where Pic­cinini builds full in­stal­la­tions with en­vi­ron­ments for the fig­ures.

The artist works across pho­tog­ra­phy, draw­ing, and video, but made her big name in­ter­na­tion­ally when she showed her life­like sculp­tures in the Aus­tralian pavil­ion’s ex­hi­bi­tion We Are Fam­ily at the 50th Venice Bi­en­nale, in 2003. (The Young Fam­ily was its cen­tre­piece.)

Since then, she’s caused a buzz with what­ever she’s done. Re­cent projects in­clude 2013’s gi­ant Sky Whale, a 100-foot-long, orange ho­tair bal­loon in the shape of a mam­malian tur­tle with 10 dan­gling teats, floated above Can­berra to mark its cen­te­nary. And in 2016, an ex­hibit of her sculp­tures in São Paulo, Brazil, be­came the world’s best-at­tended con­tem­po­rary-art event of the year, draw­ing 1.4 mil­lion vis­i­tors.

FOR AT LEAST TWO DECADES,

Pic­cinini, who was born in Sierra Leone but grew up in Can­berra, has been pur­su­ing these themes. In her stu­dio, she’s been de­vel­op­ing an ever-more so­phis­ti­cated process to bring her hu­man-an­i­mal hy­brids to breath­tak­ingly real­is­tic life.

“Kin­dred took 18 months of work— and that’s with a whole team of peo­ple,” she re­lates. “My stu­dio in Aus­tralia— we’ve been work­ing to­gether for 15 years and we’ve per­fected the way of mak­ing them over time.”

Their big­gest chal­lenge, and big­gest suc­cess, has been cre­at­ing real­is­tic skin. “Ini­tially, we would pour the sil­i­cone in and we would paint on top. Then we re­al­ized it didn’t act like skin,” she ex­plains. “Skin is quite translu­cent and we wanted to repli­cate that in the work. What we do now is dif­fer­ent lay­ers, dif­fer­ent lev­els of translu­cency. What hap­pens is light trav­els through the first few lay­ers of sil­i­cone and it bounces back when it hits the opaque lay­ers. We can do it well with paler skin.… But how do we get the beau­ti­ful glow­ing dark skin? We’re work­ing on that now.”

Metic­u­lous care and love get poured into ev­ery step of the process, and some­how that warmth em­anates from her sculp­tures. But in the end, she ad­mits, some peo­ple will still want to turn away. Her work has, af­ter all, been called “grotesque” by those who are per­haps un­able to see the larger pic­ture.

“I don’t make any­thing out there for peo­ple to hate and de­spise and pity. You could say it’s a very ma­ter­nal re­la­tion­ship,” says Pic­cinini, who is a mother of two. “There’s a lot of love in this work. But some­times peo­ple don’t see that. They see it as a freak show. And that hap­pens if you’re very in­vested in the idea of na­ture as it is now and the idea of nor­malcy and you’re not open to dif­fer­ence.”

For a few view­ers, the mother in Kin­dred will re­main a mon­ster, but Pic­cinini, who so clearly cares for her, has come to terms with that: “I have to ac­cept,” she says sim­ply, “this work isn’t for ev­ery­one.”

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