Freaky sculpture raises ethical, moral dilemmas
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.