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The Body and Patricia Piccinini

Words:

Edd Norval
January 16, 2021

How do we think of the human body now? How has that changed in the last 50 years? What about the last 1000? How could our bodies look in the future with our rapidly improving science and technology? These questions have all been asked by the work of Patricia Piccinini, whose considerations are as artistic as they are practical and philosophical.

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For many people, her name may be unknown, yet her art firmly in their mind. In 2016, as part of an advertising campaign to raise awareness of the importance of road safety, her sculpture ‘Graham’ found itself featured in media outlets all over the world. The grotesque figure, whose body is a manifestation of what a human would have to look like to endure a car crash, was an award-winning and thought-provoking campaign.


Much like the ‘appeal of a car-crash’, her sculpture had that quality where you couldn’t look for too long, but couldn’t look away either. Specifically, Graham was the result of a collaboration between a trauma surgeon, a crash investigation expert and herself, who imagined what the outcome of an evolutionary process might look like had we been repeatedly exposed to road traffic collisions. 


One of the most disturbing things about Graham is how real he actually looked, how plausible this future could actually be. The conditions are obviously unbelievable, but the notion that we could evolve in such far-reaching ways to accommodate for more everyday behaviour raised many questions - a great deal of which Piccinini has explored in others works.

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Understanding bio-ethics and bio-technology is integral to the artist’s works, with her confrontational and controversial style being a lightning rod in the debate about where nature and nurture meet, about that grey-area where the battle rages between what we should and shouldn’t be meddling with. 


Piccinini plays with our concepts of nature and what is natural, juxtaposing our accepted ideas with ones that seem monstrous to us. In one sculpture, a woman holds a strange humanoid creature tight at her chest, in another, a vaguely familiar animals gather around their mother’s teet for food. There is, in all of them, something nurturing, motherly and co-existent about all of her works.


Whilst not promoting the idea of playing with nature, with altering genome sequences and creating something entirely otherworldly, the artist doesn’t decry it either. The hyperreality of these sculptures make them deeply unsettling, and therein lies one of the most important points. Why is it unsettling? Is it because we are prepared to make fake lips, tits and bodies, but not a new benign species? We will make vegetarian meat so authentic a carnivore wouldn’t know, but god forbid we make a human more resilient to physical trauma. 

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These are all challenging ideas, ones that push us to reach for logic where there probably isn’t too much of it around. Piccinini sometimes works with what natural law has written, but other times will just re-write it herself to suit. In an interview, the artist referred to her appreciation of old social realism art that examined the effects of the industrial revolution on people. She aims to use the same principles examining the technological revolution’s effects on our natural world. 


Where does it end? Well, it’s already been 25 years since Dolly the sheep - the world’s first cloned animal - was born. A lot has changed in that time, not only with what is possible scientifically, but what is accepted socially. People, under the influence of social media, continue to edit their bodies in real-life as they did with filters only four or five years prior. What’s to stop people choosing how their children look in the future? What about having a pet specially designed for them?


Sadly, the answer probably isn’t that any of these playing-God desires are inherently unnatural, more that we’re inclined to answer that the only thing stopping us is money. If people can pay for it, there’s little in the way to stop them. Although Piccinini’s works seem odd, futuristic and vaguely horrifying now, in a couple of decades, we may be walking alongside some of them.

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