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Patricia Piccinini was born in Sierra Leone and lives in Melbourne. She has a Doctor of Visual and Performing Arts (Honora Causa) from The University of Melbourne, Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Victorian College of the Arts and Bachelor of Arts in Economic History from the Australian National University. Piccinini is Enterprise Professor in Visual Arts at the Victorian College of the Arts, University of 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. Other 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, 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 Skywhal

Patricia Piccinini
is In Wild Air


Culture

Frankenstein


This year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein. The story has been a staple of popular culture since it's publication, starting with the unauthorised theatrical adaptations that appeared shortly after, through early cinema, to the present day. It's interesting to reflect on why it has remained such an iconic story for the modern age.

For me, Frankenstein is a story about bad parenting. Dr Victor Frankenstein creates a new being, but is horrified by the fact that it doesn't look like him. Her rejects his creation, refuses to love or care for it, refuses even to create a companion for it and thus condemns 'the monster' to a life of loneliness and segregation. While Dr Frankenstein's 'hubris' is often cited as the tragedy of the novel, I see his abrogation of parental responsibility as the real cause for the violence that ensues.

If we are going to create new life, do we not have responsibilities towards that which we create? This seems to me to be Shelley's question, both as a creator in a time of scientific upheaval and as a mother, because Shelley was both. She was also a committed abolitionist who boycotted sugar due to it's slave plantation origins. The genius of her story is that it is all these things and also a great sci-fi plot.

People

Octavia Butler


I first read a secondhand copy of Octavia Butler's novel Clay's Ark when I was in art school in the early 1990s. The book still stands as one of the most interesting, complex, and emotionally difficult novels I have ever read. Butler was an African-American writer whose work used speculative fiction to discuss issues of identity, race, sex, and discrimination. Like the woman herself, the work is intelligent, difficult, and uncompromising. However, her stories still manage to be both stimulating and accessible.

What I learned from her work is that you don't have to limit yourself to one world. Her work is clearly about our world, about race and power and compromise and feminism, yet it is set in a fictional milieu that gives her the scope to play out the implications of these ideas in fascinating ways. On the surface, Clay's Ark is a zombie/vampire/pandemic story, but underneath it is an uncomfortable essay on ethics, care, and what it means to be human.

Butler died in 2006. She was the first sci-fi author to ever receive a MacArthur 'Genius' Grant. While she was well respected in the sci-fi community, her work has never really received the mass recognition of her white, male contemporaries such as Philip K Dick. I've seen her name crop up recently in connection with Afrofuturism and with the success of Black Panther — I'm interested to see what Hollywood makes of her.

Places

My Kitchen Table


I have an amazing studio where I work with incredible people to create my artworks, but often these works begin in a much more ordinary place; at my kitchen table. My kitchen is not very big, nor is my kitchen table. It is a genuine Eames IT-1 chrome dining table with a small plywood top and it just fits myself and my husband and our two kids. It is where we eat together, where the kids do their homework while I draw and my husband cooks, or where we draw while he reads, where we talk about things and listen to podcasts together. I love the idea of the kitchen as the heart of the house, with cooking and eating and talking and working together as central our family life.

In my studio, I am often consumed by pragmatic tasks and responsibilities, but at my kitchen table, I can find the quiet and space I need to really think or to stop thinking and draw. There is something about the domesticity and warmth of this space that helps to give life to my work.

Things

Silicone


Many of my sculptures are fabricated from silicone, which is a flexible, rubbery polymer that is used in a multitude of domestic and industrial applications. I use it to create the illusion of skin because the kind we use in my studio can replicate the translucency of skin, and can be cast to reproduce the tiniest details of a plasticine sculpture. Skin has this quality called 'subsurface scattering' whereby when light hits the skin, instead of bouncing off directly, some of it is absorbed and bounces around inside before being retransmitted. This is why when you hold a light to your hand you see that orange glow. Metal or ceramics doesn't do that but skin does and so does silicone.

Silicone is a fascinating material for me because it is literally formless and protean. I am interested in the way that the body is increasingly seen in those terms. The question of using genetic manipulation to change the form of the body is one of 'when' not 'if', and in discussing this shift it seems appropriate to use a material that itself has no form, only potential.

Thoughts

Posthumanism


Posthumanism sounds like something from science fiction, evoking images of bionic, super-enhanced people who have eschewed their humanity in favour of future technology. This is not what it means. In reality, Posthumanism is both more radical and less dramatic. It is a contemporary philosophical position that aims to shift the place of the human (usually in the form of an old, white man) from the centre of the 'classical humanist' universe. While there is something to be said for the ideals of 'fairness' associated with humanism, the extent of this actually quite limited and much of the disastrous way we treat the environment comes from setting ourselves outside of it, apart from it, or above it, rather than within it.

Philosophers such as Donna Haraway and Rosi Braidotti invoke the term to imagine a world in which people are part of the universe — along with all other animals and organisms — rather than the rulers of it. Obviously, I'm grossly simplifying a complex idea that I would love to understand better myself, and I apologise for that. However, both personally and in my work, I am very excited to know that there are people out there thinking deeply about another way that we might imagine ourselves and our relationships with the world that surrounds us.

Wildism

Animal Economics


One of the things that fascinates me is the shifting boundary between humans and other animals. Humans have long cast themselves as intrinsically different from animals. However, when we're asked to define exactly what we have that other animals don't — what separates us — it's very difficult to find something that hasn't been observed in some other animal. Whether it is language, altruism, a theory of mind, or genetics, research reveals that any supposedly unique human trait can be found elsewhere in the animal kingdom.

One example of this is economics. Adam Smith once pronounced that: "Man is an animal that makes bargains: no other animal does this – no dog exchanges bones with another". However, recent research has shown numerous example of animals behaving in ways that perfectly mirror the theories of classical economics. A recent episode of the Freakenomics podcast brought together a number of these examples. The episode ends with the wonderful irony that while we see many concrete illustrations of classical economic laws in the animal world, the rise of 'behavioural economics' has shown that we don't actually see these effects so clearly in the human world itself.