Patricia Piccinini: Once upon a time

Patricia Piccinini Big mother 2005, silicone, fibreglass, leather, human hair, 175 cm (high). Gift of the Art Gallery of South Australia Contemporary Collectors.

The Art Gallery of South Australia's major exhibition for 2011, "Patricia Piccinini: Once upon a time"... presents a group of cautionary tales that span the artist’s staggering fifteen-year career to date. In the largest ever survey of her work, through more than sixty works in photography, moving image, sculpture, drawing and installation, Piccinini takes us into a world that is not so different from our own. She invites us to contemplate our place within a time - our time – when biological and digital technologies are challenging the boundaries of humanity. Piccinini’s practice has been described as transversing three orbits – the biosphere, the autosphere and the atmosphere – each of which in turn reflect her investigation of biotechnology, car culture and the construct of nature within contemporary society. The themes that inform her practice occur within these trajectories, becoming intertwined within a single text, which is ultimately a story about finding beauty in a world that can never be perfect.

The tenor of Piccinini’s work and the exhibition is one of hope – that we will use our capacity to make change for the better. She reminds us that sinister forces and tensions are ever-present, from capitalist motivations, to the unknown outcomes of human-assisted evolution. Her underpinning message is, however, that we should not abandon what we initially judge to be frightful or hideous. By demonstrating that we are on the cusp of living Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”, Piccinini prompts us to recall how it was the continual rejection, torment and prejudice against the monster that pushed him to renounce humankind and take revenge against his creator.

Throughout the works in the exhibition, Piccinini prompts us to consider why society continues to judge the life of the visually flawed or strange as less valuable then the contrived life of perfection perpetuated by the mass media and the promise of genetic engineering. Will society accept the progeny of scientific intervention when it does not conform to the idealised image promised by gene therapy?

“Patricia Piccinini: Once upon a time”… awakens our minds and emotions to the possibility of a genetically modified and transgenic (where genes from one species are inserted into the genetic material of another species) world. The sublime thrill experienced while viewing her sculptures – which are simultaneously awe-inspiring, repulsive and alluring – cannot be denied. The uncanny hybrid forms seem strangely familiar, exhibiting traits of known animals, and yet are unlike anything ever seen. The exhibition takes audiences on a journey to the fringes of existence, leaving them there to contemplate their humanity, their prejudices against difference, the ethics of biotechnology and the hopes – or fears – they assign to medical science.

Piccinini’s conceptual practice, through a series of arousing and personal narratives, encourages us to consider how biological and digital technologies are affecting our place in the world. Despite our continuing attempts to control and manipulate life, the force of 'nature’ is beyond us; despite the certain promise of medical science and biotechnology, the outcomes of our interference cannot be known or regulated. The social and environmental impact of such experiments – which are accruing – is not yet known but Piccinini is asking us to consider the implications of these before it is too late. Her story leaves us to contemplate whether we will choose to effect change for the better when rebuilding the boundaries of existence.

“Patricia Piccinini: Once upon a time” is an exhibition unique to the Art Gallery of South Australia and runs from 16 April – 26 June.