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City Gallery City Gallery Wellington

Past exhibition

Patricia Piccinini: In Another Life

19 February–11 June 2006

PARTNER Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney PUBLICATION essays Stella Brennan, Patricia Piccinini, Ingrid Winship SPONSOR Ernst and Young

In Another Life is the first New Zealand solo show of Australian artist Patricia Piccinini. It’s a headliner for Wellington’s International Arts Festival. The show includes sculptures, videos, digital photos, and drawings made over the last seven years. 

Piccinini’s science-fiction art plays on our excitement and anxiety about genetic engineering, and the unstable distinction between human and non-human. Her hyperrealist sculptures imagine hybrid human/animal beings that are strangely amiable.

The Young Family (2002–3)—the most recognised work in the show—was a highlight of Piccinini’s show at the 2003 Venice Biennale. A sleepy human/animal-hybrid mother reclines, as her young suckle and roll beside her. She has a world-weary expression. In her catalogue essay, Piccinini says she imagines the mother is bearing her offspring for organ donation for humans (as we are already exploring using pigs). ‘That is the purpose humanity has chosen for her. Yet she has children of her own that she nurtures and loves. That is a side-effect beyond our control, as there will always be.’

Bodyguard (for the Golden Helmeted Honeyeater) and Surrogate (for the Northern Hairy Nosed Wombat) (both 2004) are more explicit protectors of nature, this type of species unique to Australia. Surrogate has unsightly orifices in its back that encase young wombats at various stages of development. They stand in as guards against the encroaching devastation inflicted by mankind upon nature, leaving local species at the risk of annihilation.

The Embrace (2005) is a sculpture of the artist smothered by a creature akin to those in the drawings. The artist is teetering, off balance, as the animal has appeared to have leaped from one of the cocoons mounted on the walls. Its title riffs on art-historical precedents, such as Rodin’s The Embrace (1885) and Brancusi’s The Kiss (1908). Critic Juliana Enberg calls it ‘one of the weirdest self-portraits in the history of art’.

Piccinini also anthropomorphises the inorganic—vehicles. Cyclepups (2005) is a series of brightly coloured tadpole forms with tiny handlebars and tiny perforated leather seats. Will they mature into fully formed vehicles? Truck Babies (1999) is a pair of minitrucks in powder blue and pink. Their bodies are out of proportion to their wheels, suggesting the endearing proportions of babies. Televisions screening the video work Big Sisters (1999) reflect in their darkened windows, as if they were watching them. Each screen presents a girl teaching road etiquette in Japanese (with subtitles): ‘Do not overtake a turning vehicle’, ‘Give way to the right unless turning left’, ‘Be the truck that you admire’.

Digital photos in the East Gallery capture real-life environments—a car rally, an underpass, a neglected dump—where Piccinini’s strange creatures are present but unexceptional.

In her drawings, her creatures—wide-eyed and hairy, playful and protective—get up close and personal with little children. Do we read them as horrific or cute?

Piccinini employs a team of practitioners to help her make her works. Her approach has affinities with film production—with prop making and special effects. In the Listener, Aaron Kriesler explains, ‘in Piccinini’s hands the props have been dragged out of the blue screen to reside in the resolute isolation of the gallery space … It is the physical and conceptual remoteness of this site that allows this work to inhabit the outer liminal edge.’

An exhibition guide is available for download to visitors’ iPods, a first for any gallery in the country. In it, Piccinini introduces each of her works and the fantastic stories behind them. The print publication includes an essay by clinical geneticist Ingrid Winship.