Patricia Piccinini & Jacqueline Millner
Jacqueline Millner: Cast your mind back seventeen years ago to when you made Sacrifice from the 1996 series ‘Your Time Starts Now’. What were you thinking about?
Patricia Piccinini: Well, around 1996 was when scientists working on DNA research announced that they were embarking on the full mapping of the human genome. I’ve always been really interested in the body and how technology interacts with it. I still am. I was interested in how this research would change how we perceive the body, and what control it might grant us over the body, especially in terms of progeny.
That whole project (‘The Mutant Genome Project’, of which Sacrifice was a part) was about the idea that you could design your own progeny. What would they be like, how would it work, and to what extents would you go? Could it become a kind of consumer medicine?
The project was also about mimicry, that is to say mimicking the aesthetics and approach of the commercial world. It was about imagining how that technology might operate in the real world. I was working with this narrative, whereby I created a company that was selling babies. And I was pushing this idea out to its logical extremes, exploring what would a made-to-order baby look like, and how would you market it. However, I was also twisting it by thinking about the design in terms of ‘engineering’ rather than traditional aesthetics. Using that sort of narrative or aesthetic is not the way that I work now: but I’m interested in the same issues.
Jacqueline Millner: So how did you decide what the perfect designer baby would look like?
Patricia Piccinini: I knew that it would have to have lots of eyes, as humans are visual beings! And it would have to be ‘cute’, all head basically, to invite nurture and care. I thought about what would make it most adaptive and long living. At the time I was making this work, my mother had just passed away from stomach cancer, so I designed the genetically engineered baby or LUMP (Lifeform with Unevolved Mutant Properties) to have no stomach. So you can see that even though the work had something humorous and ironic about it, it was also pretty sincere.
Jacqueline Millner: And how did you decide to market this ‘new product’?
Patricia Piccinini: I didn’t want to make images that looked like ‘art’: rather I wanted to destabilise the way that viewers normally interpret art, and to make them wonder what they were looking at. So, the work needed a ‘real world’ person, someone the audience recognised and could relate to.
At the time, the actress Sophie Lee was very much in the public eye, and on television in an advert selling cars. It was really appropriate to have her in the work, so people might think: ‘Oh, she’s selling something’. Also, I particularly chose her because she has a lovely demeanour and people really like her; she’s beautiful but not haughty, and in her work she’s always sincere. All this was important to what I was looking for. I went up to her at our local pool one day, and she was immediately interested in the project. She was great to work with, she could portray all that 1950s housewifely pride that I asked of her, but with sincerity and charm.
Jacqueline Millner: Was this a new way of working for you?
Patricia Piccinini: Yes, absolutely. For one, pretty much up till then my work had been mainly drawings. But this project was also the first time that I had worked with other people. That was a huge leap. Since then, it’s become my main way of working.
Jacqueline Millner: Let’s move on to talk about 1.00.613 (from ‘Sheen’) that you made in 1998. What issues informed this series?
Patricia Piccinini: I’ve always been interested in automotive aesthetics and culture, which often revolves around the depiction of speed. In this work I experimented with recognisable signs of speed, in particular by inserting analogue motion blur into the digital image. I was also working with another long-standing interest of mine, namely the allure of surface and the superficial, and how this intersects with our ideas of the body. I wanted to use a real body but in an idealised form to explore these links, a real body idealised to the point of abstraction.
At the time, the Sydney Olympics were three years out, and there was a lot of hype about the preparation of Australian athletes for optimal performance: again, the intersection between the body and technology. I’d heard that Australia was developing a super-bike to boost its chances in the cycling, so as part of my research for ‘Sheen’ I went to talk to an aerodynamics engineer at RMIT University. He was specifically designing a bike for Shane Kelly, Australia’s number one cycling star back then [world champion in the 1000 metre time trial].
Shane was a very interesting character: one of Australia’s big gold medal hopes for the 1996 Olympics, he went into the event as race favourite, but slipped in his pedal at the start and came undone: it was a moment of human error that defined his public image from then on. I got Shane to model for the series and like Sophie, he was wonderful to work with: he had exactly what I was looking for, a technologically enhanced body on the verge of becoming pure form. The title of the work refers to Shane’s real opponent: the time he had to beat.
Jacqueline Millner: What links the two works together in your mind?
Patricia Piccinini: Both Sacrifice and 1.00.613 share conceptual and aesthetic aspects to do with the relationships between surface and form, technology and the body, but they also both use celebrities to explore this — celebrities of course also being a blend of pure representation and real body. And they were iconically Australian too.
When I made these, I was probably more interested in popular culture that I am now, but in some ways my work keeps coming back to that, both to iconic people and to pop culture. I’ve just recently worked on an album cover for Gotye, as part of the campaign to save live music in Australia. Interestingly, the song he’s recorded for the benefit album is Quasimodo’s Dream, The Reels’s moving rendition of teenage angst through the metaphor of a ‘monster’. And I was delighted when the public commission I just made for Canberra’s centenary, a hot air balloon called Skywhale (2013), ended up in a political cartoon about paid parental leave. In this way, you could say that my early interest in pop culture has come full circle.
Jacqueline Millner: In what ways do you think ‘Sheen’ and Sacrifice are still feeding into your practice?
Patricia Piccinini: Take Sphinx (2012) and the LUMP from ‘The Mutant Genome Project’ (1996) that Sophie cradles in Sacrifice, for example. In the new work [first exhibited in London at Haunch of Venison in November 2012] the body is represented as protean and mutable, as endlessly generative, and changeable to suit our needs and desires. This idea also underpins LUMP. Both Sphinx and LUMP are ‘monsters’ — logical extensions of this desire to adapt the body. But whereas LUMP is more of an abstraction, Sphinx evokes bodily flesh with much greater realism: a refinement of my approach as an artist.
The ‘Sheen’ series directly fed into my sculptural wall works that play on the appeal of surface aesthetics, and even into works like The Stags (2008), with the idea that technology is increasingly natural, that machines have a life cycle that is close to animals. So, you can see there is a real continuity to my ideas, although how I work with them has changed, and been refined, over time.