Patricia Piccinini: Perfect Planet, Professionally Produced - Art Collector

Issue 18, October - December 2001

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Patricia Piccinini is the mistress of ideas with an international audience, writes Michael Hutak.

“The sea that I present is not a tranquil one,” writes Patricia Piccinini, in a statement to accompany Swell, her video installation at Sydney’s Artspace earlier this year. “It is a restless terrain which throws the viewer about. It is an uncontrollable space which, while not violent, carries with it a certain threat.”

The precise nature of that threat somehow remains elusive in all of Piccinini’s extremely varied body of work. The disturbingly lovable “synthetic life forms”; the “conventional” fashion photography which incorporates medical and genetic experiments; the sculpture – more like commodified, custom-made fetish objects – such as Truck Babies and Car Nuggets, and immersive installation environments like Swell or The Breathing Room, also from this year. In all these forms she skilfully depicts both the seduction and suspicion that characterises modern life.

She views the role of the contemporary artist as not to merely steer a creative impulse into the production of art. Piccinini is also part chronicler, interpreter and commentator on contemporary culture. “My work is guilty,” she tells Australian Art Collector. “For example, the Car Nuggets. They’re modelled on chicken nuggets. They are to cars what chicken nuggets are to chickens. And when you look at them, they have no purpose, you can’t drive ‘em, they’re just ‘essence of car’, or ‘car flavoured’. But I also think they’re incredibly seductive and desirable objects and I think to myself ‘I’d love to own one of those’.”

So would a queue of collectors, but Piccinini has a point to make. “So Car Nuggets is asking questions. What is that quality that makes consumer products so appealing to us? Why do we want something that’s well designed or beautiful? Why do we want fashion?”

What is not in question is the impact the Melbourne artist has made in just a few years. Cited for the past three years in this magazine’s annual list of Australia’s 50 Most Collectable Artists, Piccinini has hit the art world with such a force that it is still trying to play catch-up: Who? What? Where the hell did that come from?

Patricia Piccinini is an artist whose practice in a little over a decade has swung 180 degrees smack into the zeitgeist. The thirty-six-year-old Melbourne-based artist started out in the 1980s training as a painter. By the end of the millennium, she had adopted a post-modern position, where she “directs” the production of the artwork, not dissimilar to an auteur film director who marshals the talent of others to realise the final work.

Piccinini says her work requires a team of people, and she is careful to always credit anyone who has contributed to the production of a work. “I don’t want the ideas to be limited by what I can physically do,” she argued in a recent interview. “The ideas come first.”

Her ideas typically surround a duplicitous attitude to the impact of new technologies. Of The Breathing Room, she says: “The show reflects a very contemporary state of anxiety that occurs as new technologies (electronic, bio-chemical, bio-technological, agricultural) begin to destabilise the fundamentals of life; the specificity of species, the physicality of space, the continuity of cultural or political institutions.”

Take her attempt to “play god” and create her own little critter, an artificial “life form” that looks a little like a platypus, and which she calls Synthetic Organism 2, or SO2. She conceived the work after reading in the newspaper that the first synthetic organism was currently being made.

“This is an organism that’s been created from nothing,” she enthuses, “just from base pairs, from chemicals. It’s not like putting a dog and a cat together and getting a dog-cat. It’s putting chemicals together and getting new life. It’s astounding. Phenomenal really.

“I thought ‘why would you do it when we already have so many endangered species?’ but then I thought ‘there’s lots of reasons that have to do with medicine and saving peoples lives’. So on one hand you want technology to improve the world and on the other hand you think ‘what kind of a normalising affect will that have?’ That’s the kind of anxiety and tension that I’m talking about.”

Born in Sierra Leone to an English mother and Italian father, Piccinini settled with her family in Australia in 1972. After completing a degree in economic history, she studied painting at the Victorian College of the Arts, after which she and her husband, Peter Hennessey, spent three years managing an artist-run space in Melbourne, called the Basement Project.

Today Hennessey runs his own new media consultancy, Drome, where Piccinini has her studio, and whose employees also double as assistants on her art projects.

Her work figures in such major public collections as the National Gallery of Victoria, The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Queensland Art Gallery, Parliament House Collection, Artbank and several university collections. Private collectors are also numerous but Piccinini saves a special mention for Melbourne architect, Corbett Lyon, whom she calls “my greatest patron.”

“He’s been a very good supporter of my work. He bought the Truck Babies and the Car Nuggets and he’s let me exhibit them in important shows. He’s my best collector and he really looks after the works,” explains Piccinini.

She also says that she’s happy to be based in Australia – for the time being. “I think it’s a valuable position to start making work from and I like Australia, although sometimes I’m envious of the opportunities that European artists get because they have a bigger art world around them. Sometimes I feel the isolation Australia has because not many people come here to see the work.”

Not that her work suffers from a lack of international exposure. Solo shows this year include Superevolution at Lima’s Centro de Artes Visuales, Galeria Pancho Fierro and The Breathing Room at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, plus inclusion in important surveys like the Berlin Biennale, and Hybrid<Life>Forms at the Netherlands Media Art Institute. Last year she featured in the René Block-curated exhibition Song Of The Earth, in Kassel (Germany), the Kwngju Bienale, Korea, and other group shows in Kuala Lumpur, Cardiff, Tokyo, Amiens and Philadelphia.

Envy abounds in the art world but Piccinini’s modesty tempers any views on her success. “I never really thought about it, I just wanted to make stuff. I am happy about [my success] because it means that I can do more. What I do want is the opportunity to make good work,” she says.

Yet to secure international representation (though it can’t be far away),Piccinini’s Australian dealers are Jan Minchin at Tolarno Galleries and Roslyn Oxley in Sydney. Yet Piccinini professes to not be interested in the art world: “A lot of artists make art about the art world and I think that’s important, but I’m not interested in it.”

Neither is her art-making about displaying to the world her inner tortures or turmoil. She says: “No, I don’t expect people to be interested in that. I think some of my ideas come from my experiences in the world but I don’t make work about those specific experiences.”

But some moments do peep through, if cryptically. Her new show at Tolarno in October is titled One Night Love, a slogan Piccinini saw etched on the panel-work of a Japanese truckie’s rig.

“You have to see these trucks, they’re incredible,” she enthuses. “They are works of art in themselves.”

The new works are in the mould of the Car Nuggets except Piccinini has decided to add ornament: painted hot-rod flames, sourced from “classic” detailing on Australian surfie panel vans.

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