Patricia Piccinini

Patricia Piccinini’s visions of nature and science have drawn international attention to her work. She divides opinions with her hand-crafted hybrid objects using an array of materials to produce sculptures, photographs, drawings, videos and, most recently, balloons, which dissolve notions of pure entities or borders having ever existed. Since her Venice Biennale exhibition in 2003, millions of people worldwide have seen her work. In Issue 40, Kon Gouriotis spoke to Piccinini about her postmodern process and confronting hybrid forms.

What is preoccupying you 2017?
At the moment I am busily preparing new works for the exhibitions at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA), Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery and a major Australian survey exhibition, which I hope will be announced very soon. This survey will be the most ambitious I’ve ever done. I’m combining new work with an in-depth survey. I’ve done both things before but never together. I’m working with new materials and new ways of presenting work. It’s really exciting but quite daunting. One space in this survey is entirely devoted to a huge installation of new works. Last year I had a survey show in Brazil, which toured to four venues and got amazing audiences. But the survey show will have far more work in it, and more than half of it is brand new. I am privileged to have this level of support from Australian galleries.

Will these exhibitions have many of the recurring moral and ethical issues to which your work refers?
Absolutely, as I have always been interested in difference and the place of the other in our society, as well as our relationship to practices such as medicine. What interests me is the complexity and greyness of an occupation like this. There is no doubt that most people enter medicine for the best reasons but medicine itself is very hierarchical. Then there is the further complication of biotechnology companies where the desire to help is attached to commercial imperatives.

This isn’t a story of a good/bad dichotomy, it is one of negotiated compromise. I’m interested in what is negotiated and which voices are heard. I’m also interested in empathy and compassion as valid elements in a story which privileges the so-called ‘rational’. For me this is about ethics and compassion rather than morality; the latter suggests rigidity rather than a constantly shifting negotiation. But, that’s just one of my interests. I’m mainly concerned with relationships; the relationships between us and that which exists around us, the environment, what we might create. These relationships are fraught with ethical tensions and complex negotiations: that is at the heart of my work.

What has been the most important development of your practice?
Like most artists I’m drawn to a pretty diverse range of stuff. I love Symbolism and British 19th-century social realism, especially that strain that uses animals as social metaphors, like August Schenck’s ‘Anguish’ in the NGV. I’m drawn to sincere work, a sense of compassion for the subject rather than superiority and irony: Louise Bourgeois, Artemisia Gentileschi, Berlinde de Bruyckere.

There have been several turning points in my personal development. Firstly when I realised that I didn’t just have to paint or draw, that if I could work with others to realise my ideas I would never have to be limited by my particular set of skills. The second was when I started The Basement Project, an artist-run space, after I left art school. Sitting in a basement for eight hours a day waiting for people to come down and look at my work gave me a visceral understanding of the relationship between contemporary art and audiences, and how I wanted that relationship to evolve. And Venice, in 2003, gave me the confidence to think that there might be interest in my work internationally.

What is the most exciting part of your processes?
Putting the work in the gallery and seeing people responding to it. Up until that point it’s mostly pretty stressful. I mean, I have to be pretty confident in an idea before I commit to making it, but I’m not making work just for my own amusement; it’s not finished until someone sees it.

It seems the theory behind your aesthetic exchanges is that each work can be appreciated for its own sake, and on a multiple levels, even as a decorative object. This idea has broken down barriers between design, sculpture, photography, drawing and video. Are you reacting to the single-mindedness of Modernism?
That’s interesting. What I would say is that I’m a huge fan of diversity. My first thought was that I was not a formalist but then I’m very interested in materiality, but mostly in terms of the way it can tell my story. However, I also make work that is very much just about materiality, like the Panelworks or Car Nuggets which are about form and surface, although they are also about the seduction of consumer culture, so they aren’t strictly formalist. I think in a contemporary context my diversity isn’t especially unusual. My art is primarily about ideas – ideas take many forms.

You seem to place a primary concern on the audience’s experience, from concept to presentation, why is this so important to you?
I think every artist cares about the audience. What might distinguish my work is who I imagine the audience to be; which is pretty much anyone who is willing to look and think, not just the art world elite. For me the whole point of art is communication and connection between the artwork and the audience. (I say artwork not artist because I’m more interested in the work than the artist.) I respect the effort a viewer puts into engaging with my work.

If I’m just making work for myself then what right do I have to take up valuable space in the world? If I expect people to look at my work then they can expect me to care about their experience. That doesn’t mean making work in order simply to please them, but it does mean thinking about how to make sure there is something there that they can see.

It appears all your work challenges cultures of infallibility, yet your work is focused on issues concerning the extinction of species, the environment, and social isolation, etc. Are you concerned that you are also seduced by an inability to be wrong?
That’s interesting, because I’m pretty sure that’s what I’m presenting – the creatures, the ‘solutions’, the responses – are almost certainly ‘wrong’. I would never present myself as any kind of expert. These are my responses to changes and events I see around me. I’m not offering solutions, I’m trying to open a space for people to think, feel and discuss this stuff. That doesn’t work if you already know the answer.

Does your work suggest that hope can only exist in hybrid forms?
Now that you say it, I think I do. So many of the world’s problems come from separating things into the ‘pure’ and excluding anything that is deemed other. That’s pretty much the definition of racism. Hybridity is an acknowledgement there is no ‘pure’, that we all exist on a continuum. When you do that it is far more difficult to exclude or malign. It is easier to destroy an environment from which we feel separate. My interest in hybrid forms comes from a belief that there is no ‘pure’, that we are part of a complex and diverse world. In fact, I would say there never was a ‘pure’ in the first place. It’s a false dichotomy.

Your play with formal elements reached new emotional and audience heights with the inflatable ‘Skywhale’, what inspires you the most – scale or space?
Skywhale is a pretty strange project for me. It’s more of a performance than an object. I love most the way she transforms as she inflates and deflates, and the sense of triumph everyone shares when she is finally airborne. And there is the potential she has to literally float in and out of people’s lives. She is art outside the boundaries of the institution: people will see her and not even know she is an artwork. Obviously, the people who turn up to see her take off know she is, but for people who just happen to be underneath when she floats past, she is just some extraordinary thing that’s entered their life.

Your studio in Collingwood has produced hand-crafted objects using an array of materials. Can you talk about the ongoing demands of maintaining a professional studio for your work?
It is both wonderful and intense. I’ve worked with most of the people for more than 10 years, we have a real commitment to each other, and a deep understanding. They are all skilled and creative, some of them are artists in their own right, so the studio provides them with support; I definitely feel a real responsibility towards them.

The freedom that I get from the studio is amazing. We can make pretty much anything; I am much closer to the processes than if things were fabricated externally. I’m there at every step, there is flexibility and the possibility to experiment, but we’ve all worked closely together for so long that we have a shared understanding and language which makes things very efficient. I could probably do what I do without the studio but I don’t think I could do it as well.

Why has it been so important for you to stay in Australia?
Well the studio is a big part of that, but I think that Australia has an amazing arts culture, and the potential to be a wonderful country – although it’s increasingly difficult to say that in the current political climate. As a migrant in the 1970s I was given incredible opportunities, and I’m keen to be helping to grow this culture in a positive way. It certainly makes it more difficult to work internationally from here, but I don’t want to turn my back on the community around me. I want to be part of making it bigger and better.

What is the VCA’s intention by appointing you as an Enterprise Professor earlier this year?
It’s a research role, primarily. The University is committed to supporting me in continuing my practice and I bring that back to the students and the institution. Melbourne University has a number of these Enterprise Professorships, to bring in people who are focused on their professional practice rather than the traditional academic life. It’s a wonderful role and very flexible and I very excited about where it might lead.

Do you ever consider what your life in Freetown, Sierra Leone would have been like if you had remained there?
As expats, my family always had the option to leave. When things got bad they did, so it’s a bit disingenuous of me to think in those terms. There are so many people there who never had that option and it has been enormously difficult for them. I did once meet a couple of girls who had come here from Sierra Leone as refugees, and they told me they were happy to see the name of their country in a positive context rather than a tragic one. I felt very honoured by that.

This interview was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 40, 2017

Patricia Piccinini: The Gardener’s Eye
20 August – 19 September 2020
Roslyn Oxley9, Sydney


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