‘It’s been a decade in the making, but GOMA’s invitation to create a whole world has been a dream for me’. In several speeches during the opening weekend of her solo show, Patricia Piccinini didn’t stint on her gratitude to the Queensland Art Gallery for its gift of the entire ground floor at its Gallery of Modern Art – the first time it’s been offered to an Australian artist.
The sheer size of its echoing spaces does require artworks (and an imagination) that can fill them convincingly. And Piccinini is one of the few artists in the world who might fit the bill.
She also has appeal outside the ‘art-world elite’, as was evidenced in 2016 when an audience of 1.4 million viewed ‘Comciência’ in Brazil, making her more popular than Renoir and Picasso that year. Perhaps those numbers encouraged critic John McDonald to describe her work as ‘Disneyfied’ in the National Gallery of Australia’s recent ‘Hyper Real’ show. Piccinini may have been addressing him when she asserted, ‘It’s not Hollywood; their monsters have to be killed, while my monsters are loved in the stories I and viewers make up around them’.
And they’re loved via their eyes. Just as the artist won hearts with her running-shoe/monkey’s eyes in the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia’s ‘New Romance’ exhibition, so here, the cheeky Pollinator (2017) peers into the womb of the faceless, legs akimbo creature that you meet when first entering Piccinini’s ‘whole world’, but any unsavoury thoughts are dismissed by those winsome eyes.
Move through the 3,000 waving transgenic plants that fructify this darkened space, and the eyes on Kindred (2018) will be the next to suck you in. For this wistful orangutan mother with babies that are clearly mutating towards the human, is sister to the sad-eyed Big Mother from 2005 – pieces that the artist hails as ‘classic Piccinini’. But you’re not merely sucked in to sympathise, rather to reflect upon the nature of evolution and, indeed, to ponder the pangs and joys of motherhood itself.
Surrounded by her family at the opening, the artist – who has described herself as ‘chemically female’ in the past – made several references to her own IVF experience in producing the children who also appear in her artworks. That must have influenced her scientific investigation of such matters as CRISPA gene-editing, as well as the yen to imagine futures beyond the realms of science. But, as you climb up from The Field (2018) and are confronted by something that is chemically and mechanically male – Heartwood (2018) – questions spring to mind about the predominantly female nature of the Piccinini enterprise.
Heartwood is a massive, three-legged figure without eyes, though three helmeted heads hang from his mighty torso like autumnal flowers. Perched on a shoulder is an eagle – intended, says the artist, to suggest an acceptance by nature of this unnatural beast. For me, though, this confabulation on high cried ‘Prometheus’ – the male who stole fire from the Gods and was perpetually punished by an eagle devouring his liver by day, only to have it restored for further pain each night. Is that a story Piccinini would want conjured, I wonder, or has this macho figure failed to throw out her expected gynophoric scents?
By comparison, as you look over the balcony beyond Heartwood, into a grotto walled by a colony of mushroom bats, three small male figures crouch below, husbanding eggs in bodies that have mutated to create a nest from their arms. Their faces, though, retain an individuality that speaks of their titles – Astronomer, Optimist and Philosopher (2018). Not classic Piccinini, but classical connections spring to mind, eventually settling on Charles Le Brun; Louis XIV’s favourite painter. Well before Piccinini, Le Brun produced drawings (as she also does) to ‘establish a correlation between the human face and that of the animal whose spirit characterises a particular emotion.’
Her ‘whole world’ continues with a trippy nativity film and then surprises with a diorama – something so retro it shocks. But of course, it’s inhabited not by natural history but by delightful Tyre Lions and Butthole Penguins with youthful eyes in mind. And an equally retro caravan; containing a decorously amorous couple in bed, engaging so tenderly you barely notice their bear-like aspects. Mary Shelley eat your heart out, for these creatures definitely have their creator’s approval to breed.
The other side of the gallery has works from Piccinini’s past, presented against white walls. The long-fingered sow in The Young Family (2002) still delights, but Game Boys Advanced (2002), hit of her Venice Biennale appearance in 2003, is sadly missing. As is Skywhale (2013), which challenged the air over Canberra during its Centenary, and is barely substituted by the new orange blow-up Pneutopia (2018) that is escaping from a garden shed in the void between galleries. I suspect it needs animation to take flight.
Elsewhere at QAGOMA, Picasso’s ‘Vollard Suite’ is on tour from the National Gallery. It reminds us that people have been wishing themselves into imagined identities like the Minotaur throughout time. At a ‘World Science Festival’ forum discussing Piccinini’s work, I was attracted to the summation from Cosmos Editor Ellen Finkel that she is ‘offering aspirational mythologies that science could adopt’.
Jeremy Eccles is a specialist arts commentator who has been writing, broadcasting and film-making in Australia since 1983, with a special interest in Indigenous culture.
Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art
Until 5 August, 2018