As Skywhales continues its national tour, Ianni Huang speaks with Patricia Piccinini about empathy, evolution and motherhood.
There are few artists whose works linger in the minds of their audience, revealing unnoticed but ever-present realities. For me, the work of Patricia Piccinini has always done this. For many years she has explored the innate connections between humans and nature. Her sculptures, in their beauty and horror, highlight relationships which are usually uncelebrated. Absent figures and unvoiced ideas are made visible through her work.
I visited Piccinini’s studio in early Spring 2022. I half expected a high-tech bunker, or something reminiscent of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I had also read descriptions that seemed to paint her as Mother Mary, and that the creatures she created could teach us an unlimited kindness. Neither of these disparate impressions encompass the reality of Piccinini’s deeply passionate and worldly practice. Her sculptures appeal to our compassion but question its limits in the face of developing biotech; how can we truly care for all living creatures when in the medical field, life-saving discoveries rely on the exploitation of their bodies? As a mother, protecting the life of her family means these decisions are already made, despite their consequences. As an artist, she emphasises that compassion in these industries is complex.
P: Everybody thinks about these ethical dilemmas in a very cerebral, conceptual, intellectual way, but in the end, it's not the kind of intellectual ideas that matter, it's how you feel. While I do believe that we shouldn't exploit other animals, if I was going to lose [my son] Hector, I would do anything to keep him alive. That's what mothers do. They don't care if it's right or wrong. All of these decisions are not right or wrong, they're emotional and you feel them in the body.
I: I see that most misrepresented in your greater practice, it’s always described as just “inspiring empathy”, but empathy is obviously a complex process. It's not just an easy – I see – I react – then I change! It's so much deeper than that and I think that's why your discussion of biotech inspires empathy to a deeper extent than other hyperreal artists.
P: I'm not really interested in hyperrealism; I say it all the time and I don't want to represent reality. When the biotech explosion happens and it coincides with the current boom in technology, our bodies are going to function in really different ways – that can be a great thing, but it can also be bad. Technology isn’t good or bad, it’s the way we use it – that’s obvious, but unfortunately, the sorts of people who make those decisions aren’t ethicists, they have their own agenda, usually profit. It makes a lot of people feel overwhelmed and belittled not being part of the conversation, and I hope my work provides a point where they can.
Empathy and care are not democratic, they are learned and experienced. Despite the realness of the skin and faces that yearn for connection there is a fiction that stands between the viewer and Piccinini’s sculptures. This space allows us to digest the reality of these technological advancement and act as spectacles. Spectacles that make us uncomfortable and provoke us to question – what we would trade to do “the right thing”? How much do we actually care when our own values are at stake?
As the skywhales tour throughout the country, the attention they bring is one further from biotechnology. Since Skywhale’s first flight in 2013, she has been accompanied by Skywhalepapa 2020, a second hot air balloon who carries their pups with him into the sky. In Piccinini’s own words, the skywhales were inspired by the wonder and absurdity of evolution.
P: The whales of the sea are kind of incredible and miraculous. It is a very improbable evolutionary story. Since they are mammals, not fish, they have evolved from creatures that were on land and then went back into the sea. They’re conscious breathers, unlike us, and they don’t have sleep cycles like ours. They have really, really evolved and it’s so ridiculous and improbable and I was thinking that the deep dark sea is such a hard place to go and make a life for yourself. Perhaps they could have gone into the sky, and it would have been just as improbable. You can imagine them hiding out in the desert and living there for thousands of years without us even being aware that they were there.
Now becoming a staple with the locals, the skywhales have become somewhat of a mascot to Canberra locals. Being as offbeat and unique as they are, they raised many eyebrows during their debut in May 2013. Though there have been critical discussions around their role as artworks partly funded by the public, it is disappointing that much of the other criticisms of the Skywhale has hyper fixated on objectifying the breasts in its design.
Piccinini had intended that the design itself was based on how all living creatures physically sustain and protect family. Yet even though the skywhales represent this grand celebration of life and family, the politicisation of its naked female body speaks greatly to how women in society, even mothers, are forced to make themselves absent during moments of nurturing. Where generations of women have been discouraged from breast-feeding, let alone breastfeeding in public, these moments in life should be celebrated.
P: When I was breastfeeding my children, there were only very few places I could do it. This was only 17 years ago, and you had to go into a private little room somewhere. You couldn’t just do it on a chair (or in public), and it felt slightly sexualised. It was like, “I’m feeding a child! There’s no sex here!” And I'm nurturing this child so they can grow healthy bones and there’s no support for that in our community. It is completely trivialised!
I: When considering how the maternal breast is so absent in current visual culture, and how media tends to immediately politicise (naked and maternal) breasts, what role does gender have in your art making?
P: I am a woman, and I think that the female is rarely valorised – it’s absent. So I make a really big effort to foreground that in my work. I think that the potential to reproduce really shapes the way you are in the world. There’s something both incredibly normal but special about being able to grow life inside your body. And when you do have a child there is a huge responsibility because they’re completely dependent on you.
I: Thinking of our future generations, how can we sustain the ideas of the skywhales when this public exhibition won’t always be around, and what do you want your legacy to be after the material objects cease to exist?
P: For me, art actually lives in the experience of people. Especially in the case of the skywhales. The cultural meaning that's created at these performances is the thing that is important. That is created when the community turns up and experiences a unique moment together. We witness this spectacle, the wonder of the inflation, we listen to the song, and what matters is the experience in people’s bodies. The sculptures are really just a vehicle to get us there.
How then, can we truly allow ourselves the freedom to see nature and technology for what they are? Or is it only human to feel shame and fear for the unknown?
Piccinini’s sculptures are so incredibly like us, yet they are nothing we have ever encountered before. If familiarity is the greatest bond between us and others, then her sculptures yearn to be known. Their stories lovingly crafted into their flesh, their hands. Our job is to listen, and when we move into the future, to transfer these skills of compassion to those who might need them most.