Patricia Piccinini is referring to a photograph of one of her sculptures being projected on the screen behind her at the Frist Center artist lecture she presented last Friday evening. A very normal looking white man is on his knees, reverently holding a smiling fish that looks like a white, smushed, peeled Mr. Potato Head, whose scientific name means Fat Head.
I’m not sure if she’s referring to the fish or the human until she proceeds to explain that the fish lives 2,000m deep off the coast of Southern Australia, and was unknown to science until quite recently, when trawler fishing began dragging the gelatinous, boneless fish up from the depths. Despite their recent emergence, they are also on their way out; Picinnini says they are being fished to extinction.
Patricia Piccinini is emoting the stories of science; pulling the goings-on of laboratories out into a spectator, suburban space. It is a heavy task to visually build on the skeleton of the intricacies of science research, sculpturally conveying the mythic implications that science might have. It is walking a fine line between accurate and inaccurate, between pedagogical and pedestrian, and between sanguine and silly.
I could say a lot about how much I cringed, as a person who fancies herself a responsible consumer and communicator of science, at the amplifications being thrown around during the artist talkback in the gallery the following Saturday about what exactly is possible with genetic engineering today. Big leaps were made from all involved between petri dishes and walking udders, and although lots was said about “scientists” as a group and what they must think, it didn’t appear there were any scientists there to represent themselves.
This is where the work falls short for me: an artist can throw around terms like the “technological adolescence of genetic engineering” in her artist lectures, and then claim she doesn’t know any scientists personally, or read the literature — that’s her prerogative. But if that’s the case, then the work becomes just like the intricate, labor-of-love silicone skin covering her sculptures, with each hair punched in by hand: very lovely, utterly arresting, emotionally compelling, and but a surface treatment of the issues at hand.
Piccinini says that she’s interested in confronting difficult ideas in beautiful ways. She’s interested in ethics, because they’re slippery, and changing all the time. She continually questions the value of a life, and the contemporary perspectives that influence what we value, and I fundamentally agree with her that we cannot approach these issues with purely rational thinking. Not only does the former not exist, but also it is clear to anyone that the choices we make about what life to value will be inherently emotional. She says, “If all life was wonderful we wouldn’t change nature. We change it to make our lives better. Is that a good enough reason? This life is beautiful and to be cherished.”
What a human thing to say. What a human world she creates. Only a very human perspective could conjure these highly homo sapien alien forms and have them hug a bunch of silicone humans. A friend of mine, when listening to me rant about the lack of science in work that has “genetic engineering” in every artist statement accompanying it, said, in Piccinini’s defense, "If nothing else, Perrin, she loves those creatures." I can forgive her that, but I find the implied narrative a bit boring for that same reason. In my science undergraduate work I studied creatures that have no concept of individuality. I’m interested in Piccinini’s exploration of that among humans today, but I wished she represented or recognized the ancient ways in which collectivism and merging have been modeled for us.
I want there to be space for imagination in making art, don’t get me wrong, but I resist sensationalism around science. It’s particularly dangerous to play that game in a state like Tennessee, whose legislature is not science-friendly. I had expectations of this artist. I wanted this artist, who makes fantastic creatures that are sometimes considered repulsive, to come to my town and know her shit about what’s happening in science, or at least be able to speak to actual, published ethical issues in biomedicine. I didn’t want her to have trouble coming up with scientific descriptors when pressed, or get tongue-tied when an example was raised about a recent scientific study. I don’t want people perpetuating this layperson’s fantasizing about what happens in the research lab, because I would rather they have a fundamental and intimate knowledge of it. My concern is that someone might walk out of that gallery with more fear about science than reality necessitates.
But that’s just my informational agenda. Piccinini wants us to confront the present moment with situations that are half outside our present reality and half familiar, at least in setting. The love, the fear, the repulsion, the attraction — these are known qualities. I resent her for not representing the language and nuances of science with more care. She in turn owns her right to refuse to pay homage to the idea that science is anymore outside our common reality.
I think we must be very careful when bridging the gap between science and general audiences, lest we make people think these kinds of creations are really happening. But I keep getting caught in my attempts to judge the un-science happening in this work, because we both agree on the bottom line: Artificial and natural are no longer relevant decisions. Even if her flower-child verbiage makes my scientific skin crawl, I would go one step further and posit that (whether she knows the reasons why or not) we both agree that the idea of science or not science is a contemporary moot point.