Wander down any backstreet in Collingwood, and it wouldn’t be long before you passed a warehouse buzzing with creative activity. Knowing this, however, doesn’t at all prepare you to step inside the awe-inspiring ‘creature shop’ that is artist Patricia Piccinini’s studio.
Studio manager Roger opens the weighty door leading into the lofty workspace, where every wall is lined with wooden crates, anthropomorphic forms under white sheets and shelves stacked high with peculiar supplies. A few steps in, and I’m stopped by a forklift holding a life-like humanoid orangutang. It nurturingly cradles its two even more human babies.
It’s busy here, yet this space has the feel of an innovative atelier rather than a production line. Five staff move about the space with purpose, unfazed by scattered body parts. On the mezzanine, Liz (accompanied by her trusty terrier) is punching in ‘The Eagle Egg Man’s’ hair, follicle by follicle. Meanwhile, Isabel is creating skin by brushing layers of silicone to create tone and texture inside a mould that will later be inverted onto a sculpture. Patricia’s husband, artist Peter Hennessey, is organising and packing works into transportation crates, and more are being built in an adjoining room. Atop one wooden box rests a disconcerting detached hand. My eyes keep darting between it and the 10-foot headless form nearby.
Resting about the studio are more of these one-of-a-kind works, which will all form Particia’s most ambitious exhibition yet, an immersive retrospective and unveil of new commissions, opening next month at GoMA in Brisbane.
Insightful and poised, despite looming deadlines, Patricia found time to chat to us about her exceptional career and the many layers embedded in her spectacular art, spanning video installations to wondrous chimera sculptures and auto-human hybrids.
You were born in Sierra Leone and immigrated to Australia as a young child. How have these experiences influenced your career?
My mother is English and my father Italian. They met in Sierra Leone when it was an English colony, and they married. When I was three, there was a terrible war and we left Freetown for Italy, before immigrating to Australia when I was seven. I was very young so I don’t have much memory of it, but I know it was an incredibly violent, traumatic time.
My migrant story has been a very influential part of my life; when you don’t have the established relationships and security, you feel like an outsider, you look different, you eat differently… I was ‘a Wog’ in 1970s Canberra.
This comes through in my work because I’ve never really wanted to see myself as an outsider, which is the traditional place of the artist: who’s always looking in. Instead of critiquing or being an expert, I wanted to be with everybody else, inside culture – discussing and building our world.
Yet as part of my typical migrant experience, I was counseled to pursue economics, and studied this at ANU. In my third year, I realised that I wasn’t going to be a great economist at all, so I enrolled in VCA. To be honest, my family never really thought that I could be an artist, it just didn’t seem like an option, and kind of reckless or foolish. I think even sometimes the people who think they know you the best and love you the most, find it hard to look past their own way of understanding the world.
I agree with them, that there isn’t a lot of security in this field, but I’ve persevered. People will like what you do and other’s won’t, but you just have to keep going; it’s not for everybody.
Can you tell us how you came to first start creating and exhibiting your art?
I was at VCA, in the gallery school, and I got so much out of being at an institution like that, partly because I’d already done a whole other degree. There was a great community and I made sure that I exhibited both with and outside of the institution, and I think that was really valuable.
When I graduated, the most important thing I did was set up an artist-run space, The Basement Project, in a beautiful basement in Collins Street. It was incredibly atmospheric and we had 60 exhibitions down there – a milieu of energetic, passionate people showing their work. It gave me a great education, teaching me about the potential of art, as well as who goes to see it and why. I also learned how to connect with people personally, as well as through their work.
In this role, I was coordinating a lot of the stories for these magnificent shows that artists had put their heartfelt energy into. And then sometimes only five people would come in to see them and that would break my heart.
I just thought, ‘This is right’. To me, an integral part of being an artist is connecting with the audience. Art exists as a kind of catalyst for conversation, for growth, for interaction – it’s culture making. So I closed The Basement Project to focus on my own artistic practice.
You’re also very passionate about mythology, Surrealism, and ethical issues, how do these themes tie into your work?
My works are kind of mythological in that they’re like myths and they literally depict elements from Greek Mythology, like chimeras for example. But also through their narratives. And that’s the thing about myths: they allow us to connect emotionally to something that might be too difficult to accept or overwhelming if it were real.
I think that Surrealism would be one of the art movements that I most identified with. And interestingly a lot of women were part of a Surrealist movement because it’s incredibly imaginative, quite sensual, and it’s not particularly formal – there’s a kind of humour, and it is about people. Surrealist art is about things that don’t make sense.
But I’m also interested in 19th-century Social Realism. A fantastic example is this artwork [she gestures to an inspiration wall] of a washerwomen holding a boy, a street urchin. He’s pallid, collapsed and everything is wet and cold, yet she’s holding him and there’s this nurturing, probably between strangers. I think it’s that’s a very fantastic picture because it shows something that’s really heartbreaking: this starving boy in the toxic environment of the Industrial Revolution, but at the same time it is uplifting, it’s kind of optimistic. I try to do this in my work – it might be something that’s really grotesque in normal life, but there’s an element that’s life-affirming. Maybe this can encourage people to empathise… hopefully!
I’m 52, so I grew up during the nuclear disaster situation, where mutually-assured destruction could happen at any moment, totally beyond our control. And now we have the issues of scientific advancement and environmental degradation, which are so similar in the way that they are so overwhelming… it almost stops me from talking.
A lot of my work is inspired by the extraordinariness of nature, as well as what is natural to us, what is artificial, and how that definition is changing, plus how this relates to the environment and the other creatures with which we share the planet. In ‘Kindred’ you see the nurturing orangutang-like mother and her hybrid babies, while ‘The Pollinator’ doesn’t have a head and is kind of like a plant, but fecund, pregnant. We look at each of them and we think, ‘this is a life form that doesn’t even stick to categories!’ But they’ve got something that animates them. And we ask ourselves, ‘What is that?’, then by extension, ‘What animates us?’. Do you think everything in the world has to be driven by rationalism? Does it even exist?
I think if you really spend a bit of time with the work and not just go, ‘Oh, that’s kooky!’, then these are the kind of conclusions that you would be likely to arrive at.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you generate your ideas?
I’m a very curious person; I read and listen to people a lot. I also go out to places, but I wouldn’t say I’m an adventurer or anything like that, though I’m very interested in nature. Afterwards, I come back to the studio and think about making something from what I’ve noticed. For example, I spent some time in Tasmania and I learned all about our Fairy penguins, they’re very interesting creatures, flexible and they’re quite extraordinary in that they’re birds that swim, can navigate through celestial navigation, and can smell – You know, I didn’t even know that birds could… but they do. Wondrous creatures! So when I came back, I thought, I want to make a penguin-like creature that is blended with a kind of technological object, a domestic hand-beater.
Typically, I will draw a sketch. And then go and work with Dennis who is a 3D modeller and sculptor. On the computer, he helps me make a model (in the case of the penguins we had a 3D print made, but other times we will use plasticine). Next, it’s Fiona making fibreglass moulds and then Isabel will paint the skin tone in silicon into the moulds before they are cast. And then finally Liz will put in the hair in All of these processes are monitored and nurtured by myself and Peter. While Roger lets me off the administrative work that our studio needs, so it is really a team effort!
Your sculpture and installations are so incredibly detailed. How long do they typically take to complete, and why is creating them with such meticulous life-like detail so important to you?
It depends on the work. But some could take up to 18 months to create, and it’s never less than four months.
I grew up as a drawer and an oil painter, and I suppose I could explore the same ideas by making my works 2D, or modelling them very crudely myself, without all this beautiful detail. But I do it this way because I want people to connect. The 3D aspect adds so much to the experience. For me, it’s actually not about being so tricky and perfect and all, ‘look-at-the-skill’. If it was, I would be trying to do it all myself. It’s about presenting the best possible vehicle for an idea.
How can I talk to people about things in a way that is not patronising? In a way that doesn’t dumb it down or underestimate them? Everyone knows small children, has a sense of the problems of the environment, and of where technology is headed.
When I present an idea to the public, I want it to embody as many layers of that as I can. When you first see an artwork it’s the spectacle that helps to convey the meaning. You really have to get closer, maybe you’re entranced by the peculiarity of it at first, and then you notice the detail; every wrinkle and hair follicle captures peoples’ attention.
But there’s always another layer, and that is to do with the story behind it, which often touches on an ethical concern.
And this gets us to the third part, where you kind of think, ‘Oh, I can kind of empathise with what is going on here…’ and that’s when you make a connection, you create meaning for yourself in the way you understand.
Your forthcoming solo exhibition at GoMA, ‘Curious Affection‘ is your most ambitious exhibition to date, combining key works of your career alongside daring new commissions. What can exhibit-goers expect?
To go on a journey.
Right from the beginning, I thought that I want them to travel through ‘The Field‘ of 3,000 flower-like sculpture, where there will also be ‘Kindred’ (the orangutang family), ‘The Pollinator’, and others. This leads to a grotto of bats and ‘The Eagle Egg Man’, followed by an eyrie with a grand sculpture, the mother of all chimeras! Then visitors will go to a drive-in and see the movie before they go around to the caravan and meet ‘The Lovers’, followed by a diorama where they can see the environment.
It’s quite otherworldly, but at the same time, it’s a kind of reflection on our world. And I think visitors will be able to make interesting connections and see our world in a different way. Some of the narratives of the works in this space are very, very awe-inspiring.
In the middle space, there’s a new large-scale inflatable and it’s quite an atmospheric work because you can look inside of it – kind of like a Gothic cathedral with seams like buttresses, and beautiful light. Then in the other gallery are older works spanning across the past 20 years.
Maternity and fecundity are the big themes of this the show; there are many iconographic signs of new life. It’s not the life we know, but still related, and that means there is something to grasp a hold of.
As part of this show will be a retrospective , has organising it given you any insight into the ways in which your output has evolved?
I would say it has evolved quite slowly.
I think that you can see similar ideas in the work from say ‘The Young Family’ which I did 15 years ago, and this new work ‘Kindred’. They are sisters! Related but about slightly different things. ‘The Young Family’ was made at a time when they were talking about growing replacement body parts on pigs, and in the last year then created a fetus with human and pig DNA. That’s not science fiction anymore it’s reality. You and I have lived through this amazing thing.
The other impact has been establishing our studio 12 years ago. Before then, I worked with external studios in Melbourne and Sydney. Here we’ve been able to devote time to refine and innovate the way we create the works.
It’s also great for me to be here because our production processes can even inspire new ideas. From observing Liz with the hair one day, I was inspired to make artworks that were pictures created out of embedded hair. The fact that I’m not directly involved with inserting the hair, but slightly removed, fostered that imaginative, unrestricted idea.
What has been some of the most notable feedback you have received over the years?
So, people really love it… or they really hate it! These are often the initial responses and are kind of reflective of the person viewing the art.
Then there is this kind of phenomena that I don’t have a word for, like the feeling of becoming aware that you’re warming to something. You go from thinking, ‘Crazy! Ungracious! That’s too much!’. And then slowly you kind of get pulled into it and begin to see something more. I feel this happens a lot with my work.
When we did ‘The Skywhale‘ (a hot-air balloon for Canberra’s Centenary) there was a lot of backlash from some people: ‘Why on Earth did you spend so much money on this 10-breasted creature; this is ridiculous!?’ And then slowly, slowly I’ve seen people come round. I was in Canberra last week and all people wanted to talk about was how much they loved her!
It’s also like the opposite of a kind of xenophobia, and it’s not it’s not even xenophilia, where you love the exotic. It’s kind of anti-xenophobia like, ‘Oh I know it’s different but I kind of know what it is.. and I can feel myself starting to connect with it’. That is what I live for!
Who are some other Australian artists you find inspiring at the moment?
Peter Hennessey – He has been incredibly important to me during this whole journey. He’s my husband, mentor, and the person that’s made this all possible. Over the years we have come to all of these realisations together.
I’ve always loved and supported his art, and he’s also done that for me – that’s a pretty special thing. Every artist needs this in their life, especially whenever things don’t go well (projects fall through, you don’t get a grant, and no one visits your show). We remind ourselves that we’ve still got the art, we’ve still got us, and that’s what’s important even if the right now isn’t going the way we need it to.
Nell – I also love this Sydney-based artist, especially the way she approaches things with her heartfelt sincerity.
What would be your dream project?
My dream project is this GoMA show, ‘Curious Affection’. A big museum show, in my home country – it’s very meaningful to me.
When I proposed my idea of a journey to them I thought, ‘Oh this is my dream but I’m sure I shall have to knock it back a notch.’. But I haven’t had to!! They’ve been fantastic in creating a build in the gallery that is going to give visitors really interesting experiences.
What’s next for Patricia Piccinini?
For now, just getting everything finished and ready for ‘Curious Affection’ in Brisbane would be great!
I’ve also got a show at Tarrawarra Museum of Art, in Healesville, coming up in November. That’s quite dreamy too, this time because it’s my home city!