Beautiful or Grotesque? This Artist Walks a Fine Line Between Two Worlds

Apr 04, 2018

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It’s a Tuesday afternoon in March at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane. I’m handed my ticket for Patricia Piccinini’s new exhibition Curious Affection which opened just days before my visit. This exhibition sprawls the entire ground floor of the gallery; an honour unprecedented by an Australian artist.


In the lobby of the gallery, a short film on Piccinini plays on loop. I sit down, make myself comfortable and take in the footage which highlights the process and the vast team involved in bringing Patricia’s vision to life. This exhibition is a collective of twenty years of her work. Her eloquence and steadfastness in describing this to the camera are as compelling as the question she poses to the lens: what is the relationship between the artificial and the natural? And, if it’s such a challenge to distinguish where one starts and the other ends, can we really continue to believe in the barriers that separate us?  

Patricia Piccinini 'The Welcome Guest', 2011 (detail) - Hillary Wall Test Kitchen by Cork & Chroma

‘The Welcome Guest’, 2011 (detail)


Chewing on these questions, I walk towards Gallery 1.3 to start the Curious Affection journey. The first room is bright, and the energy light. At first glance, it’s filled with sculptures of children, but upon closer inspection of each piece, animal qualities appear amongst the more easily recognisable human ones. Each sculpture poses its own questions, but I feel a certain empathy while viewing the beauty and innocence of the youngsters. The visual strangeness of the sculptures seems secondary to the recognisable relationships and the endearment felt towards each creature.


Moving on, the show explores a relationship between technology and nature. A machine is juxtaposed with a giant sculpture of two entangled Vespa stag hybrids. A giant hot air balloon structure in Gallery 1.2 bridges the two main galleries, handing the baton of surrealism from the first room to the third. The balloon suspends you in the new reality Patricia has created, and as you enter Gallery 1.1, you’re completely transported. It’s dark, the soundscape is intense, the sculptures are spotlighted and scattered in a strange field of bodily flowers. There’s something Oz-like about the path that guides and winds you through the works. It feels strange and familiar all at once.

‘The Young Family’, 2002 (detail)
Patricia Piccinini 'Big Mother', 2005 - Hillary Wall Test Kitchen by Cork & Chroma
‘Big Mother’, 2005


Nearly finished for the day (I bought a season pass, so I’ll be back!), I happen upon an official walk-through of the exhibition, led by curator Peter McKay and Patricia Piccinini herself. I join the group and walk through the entire show again, this time stopping to hear the artist’s thoughts on specific artworks and reasonings behind the themes of the show. Patricia’s intelligence and regard for unconventional beauty is striking. I begin to understand the title of her exhibition as she explains the curiosity she hopes to invoke through her work.


“I try to create pieces that contain empathy, that show relationship, that the viewer can see themselves in”, Patricia says, looking me right in the eye as she calmly and earnestly explains her life’s work to our small group. “I make something that doesn’t tell the viewer exactly what to think or to feel. I just create the piece, and the viewer stands in front of it.” Patricia gestures to the space between the sculpture and herself. “Here is where the art happens. In between the two. It’s what happens here that creates reaction, and that reaction is culture. And culture has potential to create an impetus for action.”


What is that action, you might ask? I’m asking that, too. I’m not quite sure yet, but I do know it means a few more visits to this show before it leaves GOMA.

Patricia Piccinini 'The Carrier', 2012 - Hillary Wall Test Kitchen by Cork & Chroma
‘The Carrier’, 2012

Patricia Piccinini talks infront of 'The Carrier', 2012 at QAG GoMA - Hillary Wall Test Kitchen by Cork & Chroma

 Artist Patricia Piccinini and Curator Peter McKay

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