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Creature feature
Creature feature

Patricia Piccinini applies her own theory of relativity to her menagerie of mesmerising mutants about to take up residence at the Art Gallery of WA.

Piccinini has made her name as one of Australia's leading international artists with her sculpted hybrid creatures that appear so real, yet spring from her imagination for viewers to consider the ever-blurring lines between nature and the fabricated world.

Her art is driven by questions about technology, popular culture, extinction, ecology, bioethics and the links between humans and animals through genetic engineering, science and medicine.

She bounced off Darwin in Evolution, her recent exhibition which transplanted her creations among the stuffed animals at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. She follows it up by exploring ideas of relationships across the DNA barrier in Relativity, her new show in Perth next month.

"We are all related on this world," says Piccinini from Melbourne, where she has just packed up a truck laden with pieces for the show at the AGWA. "We are all descended from the same primal swamp."

Her installations of silicon, fibreglass, metal and organic matter such as hair, fur and fabric are set to turn the gallery into a scene straight from The Island of Doctor Moreau, populated by the chimeric creations of H. G. Wells' 19th century mad scientist.

As a creative person, Piccinini says she can understand the scientific compulsion to explore and create new things.

"It is just wonderful to be able to do that," she says. "That's what I can do in my artwork. I can come up with all these ideas and bring them out into the world. It brings joy into my life. It is almost a birth in some ways and that is a joyful thing to share. "

Despite their potential for repulsion, Piccinini's grotesqueries are usually presented with an empathy and subversive humour which plays on our collective tendency to anthropomorphise nature.

Often, they often have a childlike cuteness with their big eyes, small noses and vulnerable postures.

"I really could make work that was abhorrent but I want people to empathise, to be drawn in even though they may not want to," she says.

"It doesn't answer any questions. It just allows you to have an experience and hopefully that experience lets you reflect on the world around us, the world in which we let other forms of life die and become extinct while we are creating new life."

Calling herself a commentator on contemporary events, she tries to steer clear of being judgmental or didactic in her artwork.

"I am just confounded as everybody else," she says. "I am just as aware as everybody else but don't want to make a work that says don't let the northern hairy nosed wombat die out. But I am interested in the idea that in terms of nature we can go in and change it and there won't be any consequences."

"I am interested in why we want to change nature and find very technological solutions to problems. Are we doing the wrong things for the right reasons? I'm not an expert so I don't know."

Piccinini was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 1965 and her Italian father and English mother moved to Australia when she was seven. She trained initially as a painter but moved into video art, digitally manipulated photography and sculpted works notable for their surreal, glossed industrial finish.

She first came to attention in the mid-1990s with her billboard-style images of models and actresses which critiqued consumerism, linking the fetishes of glamour with genetic engineering.

One image in her Protein Lattice series of 1997 depicts a beautiful woman and a mutant rodent on her shoulder with a human ear growing from its back.

In 2003, she was the nation's chosen representative at the Venice Biennale, the world's most prestigious contemporary art fair where her show We Are Family populated the Australian pavilion with embryonic lumps, cloned wrinkled boys, a human-swine mother suckling its litter and a toddler playing with a family of mutant meerkats.

Piccinini now exhibits around the world and her studio in Collingwood sustains eight full-time fabricators working on four editions of each work.

A range of specialists, including her artist husband Peter Hennessey, a trained architect, and digital animators and automotive engineers help her put the pieces together.

"I don't want the ideas to be limited by what I can do physically," she says. "The ideas come first."

They recently finished work on the centrepiece of the Perth exhibition - a giant site-specific egg sac made of human hair, alpaca felt and silicon - which will be suspended in a web above visitors to the gallery.

"It is taking over our space," she says. "We go around and make other species extinct. It is interesting to think that every day 50 species become extinct in the world and so here is this life-form growing and doing what we do to other animals."

Other creations in Relativity include Big Mother, a sad-eyed baboon-like individual suckling a human baby; The Long Awaited, an intimate moment shared between a child and a grandmotherly dugong-like creature; and The Stags, an amalgam of the organic and mechanical in which a pair of bright, glossy Vespas duel like animals.

Another work, The Strength of One Arm, was Piccinini's first foray into taxidermy and epitomises her view that nature has an innate logic, diversity and wonder which assimilates whatever genetic concoctions we may cook up.

A stuffed wild Canadian mountain goat, with its horns and fine long coat, is such a fantastic beast for her that it makes her own hybrid human-seal doing a handstand on its back look normal, she says.

"It makes my creation so pedestrian because it is so extreme but it is real and mine is imagined."

Piccinini has had solo exhibitions in Japan, the US, Peru and Spain and at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and the National Gallery of Victoria. This is the first major survey of her sculptural works in WA.

With her next exhibition at the appropriately named Haunch of Venison Gallery in New York opening in September, the Piccinini juggernaut keeps rolling on, it seems.

"I am very grateful," she says. "It is wonderful to be able to do this stuff and communicate with people and be part of the cultural experience of being alive today."

Relativity is at the Art Gallery of WA from May 1 to August 22. Piccinini discusses her work with Juliana Engberg, director of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, in the gallery at 2pm on May 1.