Interview with The Skywhale artist Patricia Piccinini

Patricia Piccinini with her children. Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Patricia Piccinini with her children.
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Elizabeth Pearce: 25 years ago, when you first went to art school, what did you think you were getting yourself into? Did you have a clear objective?
Patricia Piccinini: Twenty-five years ago I thought that I was going to drink red wine and have a studio and walk around with flowing dresses on with a canvas under my arm. That’s what I thought being an artist was back then. Then I went to university to study art history and economic history, and then to art school. When I left art school I realised that painting wasn’t the best way to express the ideas I was interested in – it seemed anachronistic. I was, and still am, really interested in ways of seeing the body. My husband, who was studying architecture, said to me, ‘You can just work with other people’. He was used to the idea of working with other people – architects don’t go out and build buildings, they work with a myriad of people to create something. I thought, ‘Yeah, I can do that. I can work in the world of ideas,’ which was what attracted me to the art world in the first place.
EP: What kind of experience do you want to offer your viewer?
PP: When I see an artwork I am looking for something that moves me or challenges my ideas about the world. That’s what I hope The Skywhale offers people. What I’m interested in doing with my work is putting forward these propositions. Often they have a strong narrative. I put them out into the world and see what sort of discussion they generate. I certainly don’t try to shock people – and actually, I am shocked myself when people are shocked. I don’t know why anyone would find The Skywhale offensive or ugly. To me, she’s a figure of wonder. She’s also got all these ways into her as an idea, which I feel that people can connect with. On one level, this work is my reflection on the sublime quality of nature. On another level, she is sort of a test. She is this being that I offer to the public to see if they can embrace her or not. It’s a challenge to the viewer’s ability to accept something strange. All my creatures are quite vulnerable like that.
EP: Are you expressing your own vulnerability through these creatures?
PP: I feel that I am incredibly vulnerable because I really deeply care about them. I could tell you about each one, where it comes from, what it’s trying to say. I think a lot of what they’re trying to say is really relevant to the times we live in.
EP: In what way?
PP: It’s about how we consider nature, which is crucial at this point, but looking at it from the point of view of how we imagine our relationship with nature and with other creatures. The idea that nature is only important if it is useful to us is a very strong one, which suggests a biblical sort of power structure with us at the top with ‘dominion over the birds’ and that sort of thing.1 It also translates as how we relate to other people – our xenophobia that reacts so strongly to any sort of difference.
EP: And you want to express that in a – I don’t know if ‘passive’ is the right word. You want to express it in a generous way?
PP: I’m not going to make a work that’s saying, ‘You’re the culprit, you white man in your business suit raping the land…’ I wouldn’t want to make a dogmatic piece telling people what to think, because I also know that everyone benefits from what we’re doing to the environment. I don’t exclude myself from that. The issues are so complex and contradictory. Even the fight against climate change has an element of self-interest. What I do think is that it has to be discussed in a way that people can connect with and that allows them to generate their own answers. Being in the art world’s pretty interesting because people expect artists to be very wise and their work to be ‘true’. It is very difficult to be ‘true’, so being obscure is often the next best thing. I’ve actually been criticised for my work being too accessible.
EP: Maybe some people get confused between popularity and cheapness.
PP: I agree, or they think that work must be obscure in order to be serious. I’d like to think that my work offers more beneath the obvious visual narratives, but if all they take away from it is a feeling, then I am ok with that. What I don’t want is for them to just shrug and walk away from it without thinking. The Skywhale was a commission, essentially a public sculpture, so I felt I had an obligation to make an object that people could really connect with. When I go to an art gallery I want to be moved. I actually want to experience something. I want to think. I want my life to be somehow different when I leave. I don’t always get that when I go to art galleries, and when I do I really value it.
EP: Do you think your own work offers that experience?
PP: I don’t know. It’s not for me to say. But it’s definitely one of my aims. When it came to The Skywhale, one of the difficulties was using a medium that’s generally associated with commercialism, because balloons are used as advertising. I had to overcome that association. It needed to be something where the balloon-ness was very much secondary, where it was a creature first. It had to be something that seemed almost conceivable – and conceivable at that scale, not something small blown up. Its movements needed to make a certain sense.
EP: I like the fact that there’s an element of harnessing nature’s power, but in a child-like way. It’s hopeful. For the commemoration of the centenary of Canberra, I would expect something harder, more static and monolithic. But The Skywhale is the opposite of that – it’s gentle and maternal.
PP: When [Creative Director] Robyn Archer said, ‘Make me a balloon,’ I said, ‘I’ll do it, but it has to be part of my practice. It has to be something that’s integral to the rest of what I do. I can’t just make you a Walter Burley Griffin head.’ And to her credit, she said yes. Really, the work is about the wonder of nature. Which sounds a bit naff I know, but every time you come in contact with nature there is something there that is wonderful. We know that whales, these seagoing mammals, came from the sea, and then became these hoofed mammals, and then went back into the sea and grew enormous and intelligent. They swim deep under the water and even suckle their young down there. Is that path any more unlikely than them having evolved to fly, or staying on the land? Their adaptability is the wondrous thing, as is our own. I’d like people to look up at her and wonder about these things. But some people just see her mammaries, and it seems to freak them out.
EP: Yes, a lot of the response has centred around her bosoms. Why did you include them and why do you think they’ve been such a talking point?
PP: I included them because I wanted a benign, maternal figure. All female mammals have breasts, that’s why they’re called mammals. How could I leave them out – it would be weird. I certainly never imagined they would be such an issue.
EP: Do you think people have reacted like that because we have an idea of what breasts look like – they look a lot perkier than the Whale’s, and there’s only two of them?
PP: Lots of creatures have multiple nipples. It’s confounding for me because I just think it looks beautiful and I know it would be really functional. But apparently breasts on animals is not the stuff of art. It’s becoming increasingly easy to be disconnected from your bodily functions and to objectify the body, especially a woman’s body – and I haven’t even made a woman’s body! I think it’s worrying.
EP: Have you been hurt by some of the things that people have said?
PP: At times I’ve been appalled at people’s vulgarity. I think, ‘Wow, that’s really base’. But I see that as a reflection of them, not of my work.
EP: Are you talking about the political element? I’ve got a quote here from ACT Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Hanson, who says, ‘I really don’t know whether to laugh or cry. It’s an embarrassing indulgence only a fourth term government would contemplate.’
PP: No, that’s a different issue. I’m talking about the sorts of comments that you see at the end of articles or videos online – stupid stuff about tits or whatever. On the other hand, some of the stuff is actually quite funny. Who can’t laugh when terms like ‘Hindenboob’ get used in Parliament. I mean, it’s ridiculous. However, much of the political opposition – like from Jeremy Hanson, who I don’t even know – is not about my work. They’re using my work as leverage. The arts are always a soft target. On the other side of that, there was something in Wired a few weeks back – the comments section started with the usual ‘It’s too weird, check out the boobs’ crap, but was followed by three paragraphs of reasoned defence by some other anonymous poster. That’s what makes my day – that someone wanted to take the time to come to her defence.
EP: The Whale is a meme now, a unit of cultural meaning.
PP: Yeah, exactly. [On Twitter the other day] someone said about the Eurovision contest: ‘This is boring. It needs more Skywhale.’ So she’s become a thing in her own right, beyond my control.

1 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
—Genesis 1:28

Useless as tits on a bull

By Luke Hortle

So the Skywhale has gone viral. (Let’s all say it together now: hashtag Skywhale! Yet again, the Twittersphere has doled out some sort of bastardised and populist cultural legitimacy, in a move that is equally liberating and terrifying. I don’t understand Twitter. For me, it’s in the same category as Sydney, Bob Katter and quinoa.) Gossip about Patricia Piccinini’s government-commissioned work has become contagious; it’s airborne, both figuratively (the goss) and literally (the art). And now this titted behemoth has arrived in Hobart, swinging mammaries and all that delicious confusion (‘I thought they were penises,’ said Mum. Thank you, Mother, for that screaming Freudian subtext). Which is kind of the point, isn’t it? Because it isn’t just chit-chat, this inescapable talk (whether positive, negative or ambivalent); it’s indicative that this artwork has taken that perplexing leap from the tired category of art into the bustling cultural imaginary. And on a national scale too; it was commissioned by the ACT government to commemorate the centenary of the nation’s capital, Canberra. Christ knows what the connection is. Best not to tug on that thread too strongly. (And really, who cares anyway?) Regardless, with all this questioning and bafflement, we’ve all come together to suckle, so to speak, at the teats of the Skywhale, and who can say what her nourishing milk will provide?

Skywhale Cake

Skywhale Cake

For me, it’s this hyperbolic expression of the shock of reference, between my present experience and whatever my brain idiosyncratically connects to that particular moment. The other night I was walking home up the hill, scarf-muffled and icy-fingered, when the breeze changed and something, the shift in scent and temperature perhaps, took me back, immediately and violently, to dusk in London. I was floored by it, inexplicably upset. Bounded by circumstances and shocked to realise so. It was really self-indulgent.

Bear with me.

I’ve written previously on this blog about my reaction to a lecture given by Ellen Dissanayake about the evolutionary origins of art. (Her thesis, in a nutshell: that the behaviour of making art plays a part in better-adapting humans to their environment. Those groups and individuals who practice what Dissanayake calls ‘making special’— of which art is an important element—are better placed to survive and procreate than those who do not.) Overall, it (my argument) wasn’t great; I got a bit ranty and tangential. A few days after it was posted, someone asked me if the main reason I had a problem with the lecture (note: I had many problems with it) was because I may not procreate, that I may not participate, genetically, in the perpetuation of the human species. She was worried about offending me; she didn’t: I’d been wondering the same thing myself, in much less obvious terms—the ‘X because of Y’ phrasing made it sound petty and hard line. As a gay guy1, I keep revisiting this angst-y existential dilemma of not wanting to be, or end up as2, a genetic cul-de-sac.3 Sexuality is relevant to this discussion, although I’m not sure to what degree of relevance it can or should lay claim. In the context of popular reproductive politics, it certainly goes some way to explaining the increased use of the derogatory term ‘breeder’, where reproductive propensity is mobilised primarily against a heterosexual middle class. Note the term’s mocking gesture to animal husbandry (thanks, Urban Dictionary).

I get confused, though, wondering if my angst has a genetic undercurrent. In other words, apart from wanting kids for the conventional reasons, both immediate and distant (family, warm fuzzies, minions obliged to take care of you in your dotage), I’m unsure if this angst is also indicative of a subconscious burning need to pass on my genetic material. Currently, I don’t care about the means by which I could potentially have children (two of my nearest and dearest have offered me rental of their wombs—what do you do, pay by mileage?—it’s all so sci-fi). There are obviously innumerable reasons why people choose to have children in the ways that they do, and I would rail against any kind of artificially imposed hierarchy of the best ways to do so. ‘Naturally’ always seems to come up trumps, with its attendant cultural value offering a swift kick to the teeth of many.

And this is another reason why my particular anxiety (re: becoming a genetic cul-de-sac) makes me uncomfortable: it doesn’t match the position I’ve reached logically and politically. This kind of genetically based anxiety is frequently dismissed, arguably because socially constructed experience has become far more culturally and politically trendy following the identity politics boom of the 70s, 80s and 90s; it seems like we might only just be emerging from that particular hangover now. Many of my friends have begun to talk, winsomely and often, of marriage and babies.4 Discussing my worries with friends, I’m often met with a general response of, ‘Don’t worry; you’ll have kids somehow.’ I’d like that ‘somehow’ qualified, thanks5. Is that too much to ask? I’m aware, too, that if my sisters have children, then some of the genetic material I share with them will be passed on to their offspring. (Game of Thrones obsessives take note: I make this point not in the manner of that blonde twit, Viserys Targaryen; ain’t nobody gonna mess with Daenerys, am I right?) Richard Dawkins writes about this in his book, River Out of Eden. He describes how

Worker ants, bees, wasps and termites are sterile. They labor not to become ancestors but so that their fertile relatives, usually sisters and brothers, will become ancestors. […] To summarize, genes can buy their way through the sieve, not only by assisting their own body to become an ancestor but by assisting the body of a relation to become an ancestor.

No pressure, sisters dearest, but you could be my genetic Get Out of Jail Free card. How else am I to deal with such doleful condemnation from a figurative deck of Chance or Community Chest? ‘Go to Jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect two hundred babies.’

For better or worse, these worries have been taking up a lot of my time. I’m still wrangling with them, and I will for a while yet, trying to reconcile where and how to put this particular brand of anxiety to bed. A necessary and timely thought process, or just self-indulgent, emotional and intellectual hot air? It’s easy, sometimes, to feel like the only Skywhale in the village. Inflatable and vulnerable to puncture. An effectively empty sack, already delimited within its predetermined arc. Where is the grace in that?

So there you go. Fuck you, Canberra. Fuck you, Patricia. Fuck you, Dark Mofo. Thanks for all the existential angst.

1 For the record, I don’t want to become one of those people who begin every sentence with prefacing fragments such as, ‘Speaking as a gay man … ‘ or ‘Given my raging and all-consuming homosexual identity …’ It’s a behaviour too resonant with that of feminists. And mature-age students. But you need it as context. So let’s all cringe together, and move on.
2 Oh the oblique rhetoric of that foul thought experiment, where you imagine yourself hurtling irrevocably towards your own culminating point of being a productive, aspiring human being. ie. Must have this job, that salary, that partner and those kids before this particular date, or I will be, effectively, doomed. NO PRESSURE, OK. It’s the bildungsroman gone unashamedly and hysterically histrionic.
3 I’m paraphrasing Bernard from Black Books here. Side note and name drop: Dylan Moran really loves Sidney Nolan. He told me so.
A clarification: I’m not entering this discussion within the terms of infertility, which obviously poses its own particular issues to those it concerns. Or not; it would be a gross generalisation to assume a uniform response to any of these experiences. It’s the particularity that matters.
4 Yes, yes, I’m aware I’m entering familiar territory of the single twenty-something, but I’m curious: when do discussions of these kinds of topics become normal and to be expected? It’s a different kind of thought experiment and a perplexing one, because I’m often unsure how to participate.
5 By whom, I’m not actually sure. The stork? By me? Christ I hate being an adult sometimes. Perhaps those wonderful people who wrote Where Did I Come From and What’s Happening to Me? could pen a follow up, So You’re Worried About Ending Up as a Genetic Dead End?

Does my brain look big in this?

Yves Netzhammer’s The Subjectivisation of Repetition is on display at Mona now. It is a prelude to our exhibition The Red Queen, which opens on June 18.

By Luke Hortle

It’s the interiority of it. The quietness. Like being underwater. But I think that’s its intention (one of them, at least). With The Subjectivisation of Repetition, Yves Netzhammer cuts together this mesh of vignettes, these lyrical short scenes that shrug off conventional ways of meaning to instead offer an internal panorama of a human mind. Whether this mind is intensely personal or inclusively collective, I’m not sure. But I’m not sure this matters entirely, either. It works both ways, answering and unfolding itself to one consciousness at the same time that it holds quietly and firmly to its de-individuation. The first time I saw the work, I tried to organise my thinking about it by overlaying it with an explanatory narrative. It didn’t work. It was an imposition, but perhaps a forgivable one (an elaborate, gestalt-inflected knee-jerk). There’s no endpoint here. I see that now. There never was.

The Subjectivisation of Repetition, 2007 to 2013  Yves Netzhammer (Schaffhausen, Switzerland, 1970)

The Subjectivisation of Repetition, 2007 to 2013
Yves Netzhammer (Schaffhausen, Switzerland, 1970)
Photo Credit: MONA/Rémi Chauvin

Suddenly the title jars. It’s another imposition, warping the structure by which I understand this artwork and imbuing it with grandeur and deflection. It’s self-aggrandising and knowing, and it seems to promise a final answer that is at complete odds with the guts of the work: this quietly precise consideration of human interiority. I wonder if the title, with its implicit refusal to make its meaning clear, seeks to align the work with the art world and art criticism more broadly, with their (perhaps not so) unspoken dictate of insular exclusivity and all that frustrating pomp and vagueness. I don’t want to encounter this artwork so publicly. I don’t want that context. No back-story, please. I want to meet it in a darkened room. I want to forget my own contours. I want to overlay my own interiority, my own panopticon of thought, with the installation’s precise and elegant shadows. I want to do this unashamedly and without the self-importance that the title seeks to impose.

It’s necessarily subjective, of course it is; how could it not be? It’s curious to think about how all this stuff, this torrent of information that slams silently into us with every second, becomes part of our own idiosyncratic ‘thought imagery’ (Netzhammer’s own term). As bio-cultural structures of information and patterns and biases and quirks, humans devour their surroundings and cannibalise their memories. We’re helpless against this insatiable and subcutaneous greed. Information gluttons. Endless recapitulation. It’s ugly, but it’s a leveling move, and I’m more aware of myself within this violent playing field of information exchange.

Netzhammer’s work repeatedly interrogates this process of encounter and exchange, of how humans, animals and environments come into contact and the associated fall-out of these interactions. Gaze upon the walls with their enveloping black and white miscellany. But within this, how does one thing encounter another? What’s involved? How does a mind decide what to do, what to discard, what to imbibe? How is the violence undertaken? A faceless automaton slices open the thigh of its shadow-self and fills the bloodless cavity with teeth. Human figures crouch outside a rustic building, and then suddenly collapse. Static fingers snap fresh from apples. Innards are just more surface, just another artificial crimson plane. A mosquito sucks at a disembodied vein; perhaps it’s a root system, reaching out to burrow itself into that black mass. Someone holds a whale’s eye in their arms. It’s horrifying and unaccountably sad. What I’m trying to say is this: I’m unconsciously feasting on everything around me, digesting it in my skull and I’m unaware. It makes me feel less evolved than I think I should be. Like I’m only partly in residence of my body. I’m pissed off that I’m not conscious of this process. Why can’t I be privy to the whole interiority of my brain and mind, the whole psychological kit and caboodle? The frustration is exhausting, and I feel cheated. I was given access to pages of installation blueprints for Netzhammer’s piece, along with a huge email conversation between various curators, exhibition designers and the artist. One line from Elizabeth: ‘the whole thing gives me a headache.’ For a fortnight, I was trapped in this mesh of lancing computer-etched lines and badly punctuated emails. It was my first encounter with the artwork and I felt ripped off. The point is, it was supposed to be a clarification of the work. It wasn’t. Noise. Excess fat. Communication breakdown. (I need to listen to more Led Zeppelin.) Mutual consciousness can be synonymous with white noise, and then everyone’s screwed. Shut the fuck up. Shut the fuck up. Fetch me the paracetamol, stat.

What I’m struggling with is the gradual piecing together of this work. It refuses to submit, to yield itself, to unfold completely, to remain splayed in the air and ripe for scrutiny. I don’t know where it begins. I can’t work out what to privilege. Those walls have bloomed silhouettes. Black cords ribbon from the plaster in perfect, looping lines. Teacups sink into the floorboards. The precision of it, of all of it, is shocking. It’s changed again. Expanded. I’m surrounded. (I was going to write this: ‘It’s impossible to watch. It becomes untenable to maintain that distance between yourself and the work. Impossible to watch because the verb itself becomes inadequate; this installation is something to be entered.’ But apart from that hideous act of trite italicisation—ugh, typographical gag—it sounded far too, um, penetrative. Which is just wrong; although for something so overtly sexless, the installation is refreshingly seductive. Don’t bother with dinner; Netzie, I’m yours.) I wonder if I’ve become the focal point, the empty centre. I’m worried about this, about the possibility of my subsumption. It’s problematic. Potentially. Things (ie. me and what I hold to constitute myself) can be swept under the carpet. Effacement is one bitch of a broom, and I resent that; I resent the idea that I might need to be emptied out, disembowelled, at the feet of a great work of art. I won’t lie; I shan’t. I’ve been coaxed into bed and I don’t know which way to turn. The uneasiness of it. I’ll insist, resolutely, that I’m still here. Meshed thoughts. My limbs. Brain, belly, cock and soles. It’s hypnotic.

I don’t bother with the title. I don’t nit-pick at the bastardisation of language. I walk into the gallery and stand beneath that concrete pentagon. It’s an aquarium of thought. The visibility is average, or the clarity of the content, visually at least, appears shifty to begin with. The Shurer’s hypnotic; I try to decide whether or not to resent this. I used to know this space, this artificial cheap wooden forest on an oil-aged wooden floor, with its crap technicolour sun spinning gracefully in the gloom. I’ve spent hours in this dark structure, now unfamiliar and haunted by blueprints. I don’t know where to stand; the periphery flickers relentlessly. It makes me want to overtly interrogate what’s swimming about in the tank of my skull and what that stuff (the conscious stuff, not the meat and fluid) could look like, what it might manifest itself as, thrust exterior to bodily confines. There it is, lanced to the walls, over-determined already by its own projection. It fails, instantly, at the moment of its success. I’m perennially shocked to realise that other people have their own internal realities and that they might be the same as my own. I’m embarrassed, and yes, I have a headache.