“Metamorphosis in Art: Exploring Patricia Piccinini’s Evolution from Graham to Skywhale”

Walking through Patricia Piccinini’s Melbourne studio is more like wandering through a room filled with whimsical curiosities than visiting an artist’s workspace.

Look inside: an animal suckling a human child on its chest. Miniature anatomical model. Organic forms were speaking soundless words from the walls. Boxes and feather boxes. The severed head of a child’s mannequin lies on a table. An immobile bird of prey made entirely of feathers. A baby fused with an egg.

It is not surprising that these rooms resemble zoological laboratories or old colleges of surgeons; Piccinini told me that she taught herself to draw in the anatomy museum. In such a space, she says, her advantage is: “The models are always standing still.”’

Since then, this multidisciplinary Australian artist has garnered global fame for his figurative works that recreate fantastic human-like hybrids in such anatomical detail that their stillness seems is their most unnatural feature. This year, two major Australian galleries have announced separate exhibitions of the artist’s strange, motionless menagerie: Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art is staging the most comprehensive retrospective of Her work so far next year; and later this month, Piccinini will have seven works at the National Gallery’s Hyper Real exhibition in Canberra.

While her creatures may allude to something strange and complex, Piccinini’s own framework remains as observational and material as a dissecting room.

“I like 19th-century social realism,” she said. “[They describe] how the Industrial Revolution affected everyday people. I’m interested in the same thing that’s happening now, which is how technological innovation is changing the way we view our bodies.”

Piccinini’s discoveries about the transformative potential of biology led the New York Times to praise her “sculptures of non-existent life forms.” Over the past few years, her unique three-dimensional monsters made up of parts both familiar and strange have made their way into collections around the world as well as into the popular imagination of Australians.


The infamous Skywhale – a giant, 100-foot-long ball of hot air with ten drooping breasts and a friendly face – hovers over Canberra for the first time, commissioned for its centenary celebrations. city in 2013, before flying as far as Japan and Ireland.

Last year, the Transport Accident Commission invited artists to propose what the human body would look like to withstand a high-impact car crash. The result was “Graham”: a large-necked survivor with a reinforced skull cavity and air sacs across his chest. Graham makes international news.

They are just two of many disturbing mutations in Piccinini’s human and animal forms. Her Madonnas do not wear pious attire but are brazen and naked, half-apes, bristling with hair. Swaddled babies have faces and muzzles like adults. Nature’s expected rules of delineation – identifying scales from skin, bones from feathers, sacs from follicles – collapse, all the rules are rewritten.


The strange thing about Piccinini’s work is not that an artist’s mind could create such creatures. It’s the delicacy of their detail that makes every diverse body she crafts seem possible.

But for Piccinini, the beasts she invented were the logical conclusion of what might happen in the ongoing physical dialogue between evolutionary forces and environmental forces. Describing herself as “technologically ambivalent,” her relationship with its potential is not so much dystopian as it is technical and exploratory.

To create Graham, she worked with a trauma surgeon and a crash investigator. “I really listen and absorb the science of it,” she said at the time, “then I approach it creatively, on an emotional level.”


The combination of science and emotion is perhaps expected from an artist whose first university degree was in economics, at the Australian National University. The course gave her an understanding of human systems, operations and mass behavioral phenomena – although the insight she shared with me was not about learning about how the world works but “ it’s about how people think the world works.” The artist claims the misconception is that supply and demand drive productivity; For Piccinini, the driving force behind all human productivity is desire.

It’s a conclusion expressed with a carefully considered sincerity that defines Piccinini’s approach to her own creative process. Discussing the upcoming Hyper Real exhibition – where she will be featured alongside artists including Belinda de Bruyckere and Ron Mueck – Piccinini explains the continuing appeal of realism with apparent care.

“If you are making art that is the opposite of realism – which is a type of formalism – it is difficult for everyday people to connect with that, because to understand formalism… you have to have knowledge of [it] and the background about it. it,” she explained. “That can be alienating… whereas realism has the potential to be so inclusive. Anyone can connect to it – because it’s what they know.”


At QAGOMA in Brisbane, the scope of what the artist intends as a “compassionate vision” of the body will be recognized to some extent. The Curious Affection exhibition will fill the entire ground floor of the gallery with a decade of Piccinini’s most famous works, as well as a new large-scale bespoke inflatable sculpture and an installation Vivid multi-sensory.

I had my own aesthetic immersion experience in Piccinini’s studio when she took me into its “hair room.” In it, an assistant sews individual hairs onto the arm of a flesh figure frozen solid during childbirth. Without Piccinini’s gentle, intellectual presence, I would panic and rush for the door.

But of course, these are not real body parts or butchering marks; they are tools of a discursive project – even if the hair itself is human. As Piccinini reminded me with some gentleness: “I use realism, but I don’t want to represent reality. I want to represent ideas.”

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