Freaky sculp­ture raises eth­i­cal, moral dilem­mas

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - MAUREEN SCURFIELD

WHAT IT IS: The Long Awaited, by Aus­tralian sculp­tor Patricia Pic­cinini. Cur­rently on view at the Win­nipeg Art Gallery, this hy­per-re­al­is­tic life-size work is part of Fairy Tales, Mon­sters and the Ge­netic Imag­i­na­tion, a trav­el­ling group show with a fairly high freak­out fac­tor.

WHAT IT MEANS: Pic­cinini de­picts a lit­tle boy asleep with his “pet.” What should be a cosy sce­nario is made dis­turb­ing by the fact that the com­pan­ion an­i­mal in ques­tion is some sort of uniden­ti­fi­able hy­brid crea­ture. Part man­a­tee (maybe) and part el­derly lady (per­haps), it is both mon­strous and vul­ner­a­ble, grotesque and touch­ingly ten­der. And it chal­lenges our per­cep- tions about the di­vid­ing line be­tween the hu­man and the an­i­mal.

The Mel­bourne-based Pic­cinini is fas­ci­nated by the 21st-cen­tury col­li­sion of sci­ence and na­ture. She cre­ates large-scale works that ref­er­ence stem­cell re­search, re­pro­duc­tive tech­nolo­gies, ro­bot­ics, ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied or­gan­isms.

Her weird per­sonal bio­sphere — made up of be­ings that seem to be a mad-sci­en­tist mash-up of in­sect, mar­su­pial and hu­man DNA — could come across as spec­tac­u­lar sci-fi­movie spe­cial ef­fects. But her cre­ative sce­nar­ios are nei­ther shiny tech­no­log­i­cal par­adises nor hellish dystopias. Am­biva­lent and emo­tional, her works present the fu­ture in terms of new and com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ships.

Pic­cinini of­ten de­picts chil­dren in­ter­act­ing with strange hy­brids that seem to have been cre­ated as play­things or even babysit­ters. Per­haps born into a brave new trans­genic world, the kids take the ex­is­tence of these crea­tures for granted, ap­proach­ing them with­out fear or dis­gust.

In The Long Awaited, Pic­cinini uses sil­i­con, fi­bre­glass, hu­man hair and ply­wood to achieve a level of re­al­is­tic de­tail not of­ten seen in con­tem­po­rary art. She then ap­plies this re­al­ism to a fan­tas­ti­cally un­real scene, with un­nerv­ing re­sults.

The child rests on the kind of bench of­ten seen in art gal­leries, which could cause a few dou­ble-takes. Then there’s the poky, pink fleshi­ness of the crea­ture and the real hair on the boy, which pos­sess the un­canny, al­most­but-not-quite-alive qual­ity seen in wax­works or hu­manoid ro­bots. There’s even some­thing slightly un­set­tling about the ev­ery­day qual­ity of the clothes, which look like they could have been picked up at Gap Kids.

WHY IT MAT­TERS: My ini­tial re­ac­tion to this work was a sud­den, shud­der­ing re­coil, but the longer I looked, the more I was drawn into the lovely and lov­ing con­nec­tion be­tween the child and his friend. What at first seemed ag­gres­sively bizarre re­vealed an un­ex­pected echo of sen­ti­men­tal old paint­ings of boys and their dogs.

Along with this melan­choly emo­tional tug, the work pos­sesses clear — but never ob­vi­ous or di­dac­tic — moral ur­gency. The artist may be deal­ing with spec­u­la­tive fu­tur­is­tic tech­nolo­gies, but she is grap­pling with ques­tions that artists have been ask­ing since Mary Shel­ley wrote Franken­stein: Is it dan­ger­ous to play God and cre­ate life? If we make things that are hu­man-like, where do we draw the line be­tween the hu­man and the mon­strous? And if we choose to man­u­fac­ture liv­ing be­ings to ful­fil our needs and de­sires, what are our eth­i­cal obli­ga­tions to­ward these crea­tures?

Art his­to­rian Ali­son Gill­mor looks be­neath the sur­face of news­wor­thy art. DEAR MISS LONELYHEARTS: I just ran into my starter hus­band. I wish I hadn’t. Now at 37, he looks to be ev­ery­thing I al­ways wanted in a hus­band. When I was mar­ried to him at 21, he was an im­ma­ture party boy work­ing on a beer belly. Now he is the pic­ture of fit­ness. He is hand­some, funny as ever, with a great job and two kids and beau­ti­ful young wife. He proudly showed me her pic­ture, like I was an old aunt. Then he thanked me for kick­ing him out and wak­ing him up. “That was the best thing that ever hap­pend to me!” he said. If I’d known he’s turn into an Ado­nis, I would have stuck with him my­self. My third and fi­nal hus­band who was in an­other store at the time came out to find me and I was em­bar­rassed in­tro­duc­ing the slob to my ex. Af­ter we parted, my hus­band said to me, “So why would you dump him?” Why did I, and why have I got three hus­bands, none of them a win­ner? —Won­der­ing My­self, West End

Dear Won­der­ing: Hello, down there in the shal­low end of the pool. You have had three hus­bands and at least two of them looked like losers when they were with you. Could there be a com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor — maybe your crit­i­cal at­ti­tude? The first guy was beer-belly bound and this hus­band is a slob, in your es­ti­ma­tion. No. 2 bit the dust for some rea­son, too. What do you bring to the ta­ble? Are you fit, funny, well-em­ployed and en­joy­ing a happy fam­ily life?

Dear Miss Lonelyhearts: My friend and I are in our early 70s and we both like the same man we met through re­tire­ment ac­tiv­i­ties. We are both start­ing to get com­pet­i­tive and it could ruin a won­der­ful friend­ship. I found she had been out with him for din­ner. She hid that from me, al­though we used to talk about ev­ery­thing! Frankly, I don’t want to hear about how well it went, as I al­ready feel jeal­ous. Any ad­vice? — Em­bar­rassed of Jeal­ousy, Elmwood

Dear Jeal­ousy: Step back! The com­pe­ti­tion is over for now. Take a lit­tle bit of a break from ex­tremely close friend­ship with this lady, ad­mit­ting to her you’re a bit jeal­ous of the bud­ding ro­mance. If she likes him and talks about him too much, just ask to change the sub­ject.

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