Ahead of her most expansive Australian show to date, Curious Affection, Maxim Boon takes a trip with the artist to a strange world filled with inconceivable creatures — off a back alley in central Melbourne.
Off a laneway, in one of the quieter parts of the trendy Melbourne suburb of Collingwood, exists a place where strange, mythic creatures are birthed. Some bear a striking resemblance to us, while others defy all biological logic. Quietly huddled, perhaps peering through a loose flap of bubble-wrap, or safely nesting in an open crate, this bizarre menagerie fills every shelf and corner of a large, vaulted warehouse. Silently, they wait to be revealed to the world.
This surreal place is the studio of hyper-real artist Patricia Piccinini.
Since her breakout exhibition as the Australian representative at the 2003 Venice Biennale, her fantastical creations have enchanted, intrigued, and even occasionally outraged audiences around the world. Growing demand for her singular creative vision is difficult to overstate; a Brazilian exhibition of Piccinini's sculptures in 2016 became the most visited contemporary art show in the world, viewed by an astonishing 1.4 million people. Also in 2016, a commission from the Victorian Traffic Authority saw Piccinini create an imagined human form capable of surviving a high-speed car crash. The wildly misshapen result, innocuously name "Graham", grabbed headlines around the world, as well as earning numerous advertising awards.
But this global fascination with her work isn't merely because her sculptures appear uncannily alive, although that is certainly part of their appeal. Beyond the wonder of their realistic appearance, these are pieces that powerfully connect with a viewer, both emotionally and intellectually. "My work has many levels. You can, of course, look at some of it and just think, 'Oh that's cute.' But the more you explore it, the more you begin to ask questions," Piccinini explains. "You begin to question what motivates it - what activates this body? Then that inevitably leads us to ask, what activates our bodies? And that's a far more complex question than it sounds. We may believe that we are rational, and in control, and purely motivated by intellectual concerns. We may believe that our relationship to the world is entirely cerebral, but that just isn't true. In the end, we're all just a bag of chemicals and hormones."
Piccinini's base of operations is something half-way between a zoo and factory. It's fascinating to see so many works in progress, but as I'm guided through her workshop - a hive of activity when I visit, as Piccinini's team prepare for her first major Australian showcase, Curious Affection, opening at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art next month - the counterpoint between the lifelike details of these sculptures and their manufactured origins is particularly stark. It's almost like a magician revealing the secret of a grand illusion.
And this is perhaps because it's not just the subtleties of Piccinini’s craft, perfect down to the tiniest hair and faintest blood vessel, that make her creations so intriguing. It’s also that their design could plausibly be the result of some natural evolutionary process. This is no accident, in fact, there are some anatomical constants that Piccinini always sticks to. "There’s a lot of orifices in my work. Orifices are so important," she insists as we discuss one particularly unfathomable body; a cross between an enormous, fleshy pitcher plant and a ballet dancer mid-jeté.
"They are very sensual, and they're also the place where we perceive the boundary between the outer and inner. It's where we take in nourishment, where we release things from the body. Any life form, any creature I design, has to have some kind of opening that connects the outside to the inside." Gratuitous would be far too extreme a word to describe the orifice-centric works in her collection, but there is a faint hint of taboo nonetheless. Piccinini is happy to acknowledge that this introduces a welcome note of confusion. "Different people see the work in different ways – there’s a lot of monstrosity in it — grotesqueness even," she concedes, but adding with a smile, "Of course, I don’t think it’s grotesque. I think it’s beautiful."
Despite the overwhelming popularity of her sculptures, Piccinini says the persuasive realism of her practice, and that of other hyper-real artists, is sometimes raised as a shortcoming, especially by art world elitists. "That's often a criticism of this kind of work - that you can't see the mark of the artist, that the processes used to make it isn't mysterious," she says. "If you take for example one of the incomplete sculptures by Michelangelo, you can see the form coming from the rock, and there's this reverence about the fact that only he, only Michelangelo, can truly know how his creation will emerge. He has the hand of God working through him, and us mere mortals don't. That's the elevation of the artist — but I'm just not interested in that. And fundamentally it doesn't work with this process. What I'm interested in is telling a great story and suspending the viewer's disbelief."
And as a storyteller, if Piccinini's previous sculptures can be considered fables, the collection travelling to Brisbane for Curious Affection is more akin to an epic novel; a magnum opus expanding the function of narrative in her work in radical and immersive ways. In addition to stand-alone works and popular favourites of her canon, there will also be diorama installations that allow a viewer to fully immerse themselves in an otherworldly realm of Piccinini's making. The artist hopes such an enveloping display will build upon the already strong connections her work makes to its audience. "For a lot of artists, people connecting with their work just isn't that important. But I'm not one of those artists who seems to be saying, 'Fuck you! I want to piss you off.' I'm not that person. When an artist's work seems to be telling me to fuck off, I think, 'Fine! I'll fuck off!' I'm absolutely about entertainment and accessibility. I want to come to an audience with a heartfelt, sincere proposition: 'Ok, let's talk about this, here's the catalyst for our conversation.' I want a viewer to be able to access that idea, that conversation, because the questions I'm interested in asking, I think, are important."
Throughout Piccinini's body of work, certain thematic idees fixes are evident, most prominently gestures of motherhood and fertility, the cross-pollination between mythology, theology and folklore, and an almost fractious interplay between the adorable and the confronting. But in Curious Affection, a different subtext has been her principal muse. "This show is very much about the environment, which is probably the single biggest conversation we should be having," Piccinini shares. Several of the newest works in the exhibition play with the idea of the mythical Chimera - a hybrid of unrelated species — in some instances fusing the organic with the manmade.
"The most important thing to this artistic practice, the driver for everything, is how do we define what is artificial to us, and how that definition is changing. And the reason that question is so important - and it's not just my reason, it's a lot of people's belief - is the idea that we need another definition of nature, because the one we have isn't working anymore. It just can't keep up with the ways we have discovered to intervene in the natural process, subverting it, controlling it, moulding it to suit us. And when you begin to question the definition of nature, you quickly realise that true nature - pristine nature, untouched by man - is gone and can never be restored. It just doesn't exist anymore, so when you understand that, the concept of nature becomes radical."