Patricia Piccinini was born in Sierra Leone and lives and works in Melbourne. Her work encompasses sculpture, photography, video and drawing and her practice examines the increasingly nebulous boundary between the artificial and the natural as it appears in contemporary culture and ideas. Her surreal drawings, hybrid animals and vehicular creatures question the way that contemporary technology and culture changes our understanding of what it means to be human and wonders at our relationships with – and responsibilities towards – that which we create. While ethics are central, her approach is ambiguous and questioning rather than moralistic and didactic.
In 2003 her exhibition ‘We Are Family‘ represented Australia at the 50th Venice Biennale before touring to the Hara Museum, Tokyo. Recent solo museum exhibitions include ‘ComCiência‘ at CCBB Brazil, ‘Relativity‘ at the Galway International Art Festival, ‘Hold Me Close To Your Heart‘ at Arter Space For Art, Istanbul, ‘Once Upon a Time‘ at AGSA, as well as numerous solo and group shows and Biennials in Europe, UK, USA, South America, Asia and Australia. Notable groups exhibitions include ‘The Universe and Art‘ at Mori Art Museum Tokyo, ‘Global Feminisms‘ at the Brooklyn Museum and ‘Face Up‘ at the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin. In 2013 she was commissioned by the Centenary of Canberra to create The Skywhale.
The world I create exists somewhere between the one we know and one that is almost upon us. However, what I imagine is neither the nightmare future environmental ruin nor the brave new world of perfect scientific progress. Instead I focus on the internal, emotional lives of the new creatures that might emerge, along with questions about the kinds of relationships that might come to light along side them. My creatures, while strange and unsettling, are not threatening. Instead, it is their vulnerability that often most comes to the fore. They plead with us to look beyond their unfamiliarity, and ask us to accept them. It is surprising how quickly we grow used to them, which reminds us that this sort of thing is not as far in the future as we might think. We are surrounded by hidden genetic engineering and biotechnology in our food and our animals already.
– Patricia Piccinini
Interview with Patricia Piccinini
How do you describe your work to others?
My practice is focused on bodies and relationships; the relationships between people and other creatures, between people and our bodies, between creatures and the environment, between the artificial and the natural. I am particularly interested in the way that the everyday realities of the world around us change these relations. Perhaps because of this, many have looked at my practice in terms of science and technology, however, for me it is just as informed by Surrealism and mythology. My work aims to shift the way that people look at the world around them, and question their assumptions about the relationships they have with the world. I am especially interested in things that fall outside of our traditional ideas of normal or beautiful, or that step across the boundaries that we erect between things. How does contemporary technology and culture changes our understanding of what it means to be human. What is our relationship with – and responsibilities towards – that which we create. While ethics are central, my approach is always ambiguous and questioning rather than moralistic and didactic. Ideas rather than methods are central to the way I work, although drawing plays a central generative role in everything I do. I work with whatever mediums seems best suited to evoking the sorts of thoughts and emotions I am interested in playing with. I work across many media – sculpture, installation, photography, video, drawing – from intimate drawings to gigantic public sculptures such as The Skywhale.
Do you have a preferred medium?
My work starts with ideas, and then I think about what medium I feel will work best with that idea. I started my artistic life as a painter, and I still start my work with drawings, but many years ago I discovered the freedom that comes with more collaborative production processes.
How do you begin new work?
I begin with a lot of research and drawing A lot of time sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper.
Do you tend to work in series or do you see your body of work as a continuation?
It’s very much both. I tend to crest bodies of work on a project basis, often in response to a specific opportunity. However looking back over the last twenty years of work there are a definite and continuous set of themes, and even formal tropes that I keep reworking and returning to.
What do you use as reference material?
I use a lot of reference material. My studio is full of books and postcards as well as photocopies and printouts of things I’ve found that inspire and amaze me. I have a life-cast of a gorilla’s hands that I bought online and I’ll often cast the hands and other body parts of people in the studio to use for specific purposes. I have motorcycle parts and running shoes and other mundane yet wonderful objects that I refer to in my work. These days I spend a lot of time hunting down images on the internet, but often I find that they are too small to be really useful, which is when I go back to printed books. I also do a lot of photography of people and things, as well as life-casting which we use as reference when we’re sculpting stuff. I love reference, because it allows me to make things that seem actually connected the real world.
Do you work intuitively or more consciously?
It’s a bit of both really. I do always start out with definite ideas around what I want to talk about or something that I want to make or some object or moment that I want to reflect on. However, sometimes those things are pretty vague, and often when I finish a work and really look at it or think about it, I see things in it that I hadn’t thought of or intended. I have forms and ideas and colours that I always come back to, and sometimes I just want to make something because I like it. However, when I look back at that thing more closely I can always see how it connects to my practice and ideas.
Do you aim to create the finished piece exactly as you envisioned or enjoy allowing it to develop organically?
Due to the way I work, it tends to be pretty important for me to know exactly what I am making before the fabrication process begins. However, it is also important to leave a bit of flexibility for things to grow and change. My time to really allow things to move is while I am drawing and conceptualising a new work. During that process I try out a lot of stuff. One of the virtues of the way I work is that it forces me to really work through my ideas before I start to make something. By the time I get to fabrication, I have a really strong idea of where it will end up.
What’s your favourite colour to work with?
Skin colour and pale blue.
Where do you create?
I have an amazing studio, where my work is made and I have a space within that where I can be quiet and think and drawn and develop my ideas. However, I do find that the studio can be a bit distracting when I am at the very beginning of a work, or when I am trying to think up what to do next. At that point, I often find myself working at home where there is nobody else around.
Do you enjoy coming up with titles?
I hate it. It’s always the last thing I do. However, I think titles are really important which is probably why they stress me out so much.
What’s your favourite part of creating?
Seeing people look at the work in the gallery. For me the work is only finished when other people see it and respond to it.
What advice would you give to your emerging self?
To be honest, the way I approach my practice hadn’t changed very much. I always had the attitude that it was all about finding ways to keep going, and that you had to look around and be open to change. What has changed in me perhaps is that I used to think that you had to take everything offered to you, just do everything. I think that at the time it was the right thing to do, but now’s I feel it’s important to be a bit more picky.
Have you ever worked with a mentor?
I’ve never really had a mentor. However, I met my husband Peter about 30 years ago, before I went to art school. We have been together, working together and supporting each other in our respective practices ever since.
How do you alleviate the down times?
I wish I had a good answer to that. Despite all the good fortune I’ve had in career over the years, I’m never really very far from the down times. I still don’t feel in any way secure and I don’t imagine I ever will. I do find exercise and good food are vital to keeping afloat and my family are really important to remind me of what is important in life.
What defining moments have you experienced within your practice?
Growing up I didn’t really have much of an idea of contemporary art. Then, one day in year 9 when I was feeling really depressed and adrift I decided not to go to school. I had never done anything like that before, or since. Somehow I found myself at the NGA and was blown away by the big 1980s expressionist paintings. That was the first time ever that I thought: “I want to be part of this world.” And I have kept thinking that ever since.
What is the most memorable exhibition you have seen and why?
I saw David Altmejd’s exhibition The Flux and the Puddle in Montreal a few years back. It was such an extraordinarily complex and fascinating work. It sits on this very difficult an fine line between roughness and finish, and obscurity and legibility. It is the sort of wonderful thing that happens when artists are given opportunity.