Patricia Piccinini: Cautionary Tales

Cautionary Tales

Text by David Everitt Howe
February 2, 2015
On May 11, 2013, Patricia Piccinini’s huge hot air balloon The Skywhale was launched from the National Gallery of Australia, in Canberra, to celebrate the city’s centenary anniversary. She was an appropriate choice. Raised in the region, she’s one of the most prominent and recognizable contemporary Australian artists working today, having represented the country at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003. More than twice the size as a regular hot air balloon, it took 16 people more than seven months and 3.3 million stitches to design and make what looks like a freakish cross between a bird, a turtle, and a fish. It prompted one Australian government official to ask, flabbergasted, "Is it a she or is it an it?"

Such perplexed questions aren’t surprising considering the works themselves are so perplexing. Piccinini is known worldwide for creating hyper-realistic, life-size, human-animal hybrids made of silicone, fiberglass, and human hair, among other materials. They’re startlingly convincing as human creatures but there’s something decidedly off about them, as they’re combined with apes, goats, and other creatures. Usually naked and paired with human counterparts, they reflect a narrative of genetic engineering and biotechnology, functioning like omens of a future world in which our interdependence on other animals is literalized sculpturally.

Considering her sculptures "beautiful rather than grotesque, miraculous rather than freakish," Piccinini is interested in the way they confuse distinctions between human and animal, natural and artificial, saying that "I think my creatures are actually more mythological than scientific. They are chimeras that I construct in order to tell stories that explain the world that I live in but cannot totally understand or control. Like most myths they are often cautionary tales, but they are also often celebrations of these extraordinary beasts."


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