Notes from “Beni bagrina bas / Hold me close to your heart,” a Patricia Piccinini exhibition at Arter | Space for Art from a while ago.
Are those mopeds cuddling? Yes. A red one and an orange one.
The red bike has a nice rack of rearview mirrors welded together into an elaborate antler crown. The smaller bike sparkles orange and her handlebars droop like demure ears. They press against one another, the one’s curves leaning pliantly into the other’s. These are more than two mopeds. This is a couple.
Well, the red bike must be the male of the species. It has antlers. It is slightly larger. Its curves are more angular. To devolve into technicalities, it assumes the position we might refer to as the “big spoon.”
Meanwhile, the orange bike, with her glitter speckled exterior, is less ostentatious in the way that the female of a species occasionally is. She doesn’t wear a crown of rearview antlers (though perhaps she admires herself when reflected in the male’s silvered glasses…).
Built from plastic and tires but bent into abnormal, gracious, figurative curves, both mopeds’ zoomorphic characteristics blur from being read as mechanical into being read as organic. From there, it’s a short imaginative step to see them as members of the animal kingdom. Beings, in other words, for whom we can feel sympathy.
The curves, which foreclose the mopeds’ ability to function as mopeds, rendering them ornamental in the way of a good contemporary art object, license the viewer to project psychology onto the machines. They are not uselessly deformed objects that resemble mopeds; they are two mopeds, gendered and cuddling. They are sentient beings with a misleading metal hide. They are everyday objects that we encounter in our ‘unnatural’ (that is, at some remove from Nature, whatever that is) environment. Perhaps, with their distressing tendency to hurl their bodies at larger automobiles with often fatal results, they are an ‘unnatural,’ mechanical replacement for deer.
Nature versus technology – with spin. The anthropomorphization of all the eDevices we use to prop us up. Concurrent with this trend to attribute a privileged ontological status to electronics is the alienation of people from their bodies. As we think and use and talk and mediate (in the sense of abstracting otherwise unassisted interpersonal communication) with more and more ease, we begin to associate the qualities of our friends not with their anatomy but with their gadgetry.
So, throughout the exhibition, humans appear (mostly in the most sympathetic of stages: childhood) alongside strange, overtly biological, squeamishly exaggerated fictional creatures. There are a lot of orifices. A lot of pinkish, translucent flesh. A lot of grotesque and fleshy anatomical permutations.
The first floor is, in Hegelian terms, the thesis: we anthropomorphize gadgets. The second floor is the antithesis: because of the increased humanity of gadgets, we grow distant from our own flesh and blood and those with whom we are closest. The mind is split from the body, which gets pathologized. The third and final floor attempts to create sympathetic conditions in order to soothe away the self-disgust that accompanies electrified life. This is why one piece is simply a mirror. See yourself in polished silver as exactly what you are.
In terms of its execution, the show deploys a similar blockbuster, gesamkunstwerk approach as that used by Matthew Barney for the Cremaster Cycle (right down to the show’s attempt to disgust through materials and content). This approach takes advantage of the exhibition-as-format to combine many different pieces as a narrative installation (cf. that 1-2-3 Hegelian argument distributed across floors). For the exhibition itself, this yields a sense of cohesion, of totality, to pieces which may differ drastically in medium and/or execution. Commercially, this offers a broad variety of shiny things.
The conceptual underpinning differs only slightly from Romanticism. The message is anti-technological. And yet a central irony of it is that without the precision of modern tools, this type of work would be impossible. The most salient (and also the central) aspect of the installation is the acuity and charm with which it identifies our proclivity to anthropomorphize.