This is another long post, but feel free to read if you’re interested in the concepts behind my final project this term!
December 9, 2018
There is a recollection within the human psyche that is called upon when one observes the world outside oneself. This memory recall allows the human mind to place the body in relationship with that which is around it thereby allowing the human to understand his or her place within the wider world in which he or she occupies. Doing so will then compel the individual to make judgements about others and evaluations on objects, animals, or even other humans. These findings will determine whether this experience between the individual and the object of their attention matches their previous life experience or if this is an entirely new experience. The uncanny, or unheimlich, is the point at which the new experience and memory overlap thus creating an entirely new experience. The new uncanny experience is in its essence bizarre and queers the original memory of the individual by creating a new memory through a new understanding.
Something odd occurs when one recalls an object, animal, or person, what Patricia Piccinini might call a creature, but the placement of this creature within the world doesn’t match the memory which is then evoked. The creature present before the human is then simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar to the individual, creating an uncanny experience – that which occupies the space of the knowable and unknowable at the same time. Patricia Piccinini becomes both a master of and coconspirator as she explores this disjointed experience of the uncanny within her body of work. Piccinini creates sculptures and installation art from seemingly commonplace materials such as silicone, acrylic resin, leather, and fiber glass.
Piccinini’s use of the materials is far from commonplace. Often relying on the image of a figure (either bipedal, quadrupedal, or sans-pedal), she composes creatures which seem to be an amalgamation of human and animal characteristics. Human features such as specifically human like eyes, skin features (such as wrinkles, moles, sagging flesh), primate like arms/legs, and tails are arranged to create beings that appear to be both self-conscious and sentient.  Piccinini’s focus on a humanlike form is far from accidental and she employs it in such a manner that the viewer is drawn in due to the natural connection humans have with other humans. Upon further inspection the viewer is then granted a closer look into Piccinini’s world and enthralled with a sense of otherness that can only be accomplished through her tactics of employing recognizably human characteristics within an otherwise inhuman form.
Viewers are only able to get a glimpse at the world that Piccinini creates through her use of the figures, their relationships with each other, and their seeming self-awareness in how they interact with the viewer. The sculptures which she fashions do not vie for the audiences’ attention nor do they implore the audience to come into their space through their actions; however, viewers are drawn to the sculptures all the same. This is primarily due to the recognizability of the human physiognomies within the work. The sculptures employ a sense of their own purpose in the way the faces, eyes, and appendages are sculpted. They do not directly engage the viewer’s gaze unless the viewer places themselves within their line of sight. Though she relies on the human-like materials to form her work, what she truly relies on to build relationships between her audience and her world is the skillful use of what Sigmund Freud called The Uncanny. Freud referred to this concept as Unheimlich, or that which is unhomely. This term leads one to believe; however, that the images and representations which Piccinini creates are not of the home (or known) and completely foreign. Piccinini’s creatures would discredit this assessment simply upon viewing, as can be seen within her piece The Carrier (Figure 1). Within this sculpture an elderly woman is carried by a humanoid creature, which has distinctly human characteristics – including body hair, human eyes and mouth, torso, and ears – but there are also distinctly inhuman characteristics which are present – such as the snout and simian like hands, feet, arms, and legs.
The combination of these known and unknown features is what creates the pull and push which Piccinini revels in within her work. Freud states this experience which Piccinini creates is “…the uncanny (unheimlich) [or that which] is something which is secretly familiar [heimlich-heimisch], which has undergone repression and then returned from it, and that everything that is uncanny fulfils this condition”. This uncanniness is precisely what is explored within Piccinini’s world. The viewer is invited to not only explore her world but also become a part of it. This is a world in which evolution is necessary to determine the survival of the fittest. Evolution becomes a tool that consumers can use in order to mass produce and bioengineer creatures to fulfill their own desires or needs. However, within Piccinini’s world simply combining different non-human, animal features are not enough – as these creatures’ roles require a more human touch than any animal can give on their own to complete their designated tasks. As a result, human DNA becomes combined within animal DNA to produce solutions for the consumer. The beings which Piccinini creates and the manner in which they are conceptualized directly relates to the concept of transgenics – the combining of genetic material from different sources. This technique forces the fracturing of the mental categories in which a human may organize the ideas of what it means to be human and what it means to be an animal.
The hyper-realistic sculptures which result from this combination of human and inhuman form are the key to the success of Piccinini’s work. Meticulous craftsmanship and incredible detail are used to convince the viewer of a nonexistent reality. This attention to detail is what serves to create the uncanniness which is felt by the viewer and intended by Piccinini as the artist, thereby bridging the gap between what she as the artist imagines and what one would be ale to consider as reality. These features that convince the viewer of the reality of her consists of getting absorbed in every skin-blemish, wrinkle, pore, hair placement, and ensuring that each figure has exceedingly expressive human eyes. Piccinini is aware that what makes one human is not extreme beauty and takes care to include the grotesque features which also make a figure human, such as disgusting toenails, veins, or welts. The human connection is clear from her aesthetic choices in the deconstruction and then reconstruction of the human form. The tendency of humans to anthropomorphize objects and animals alike is also leveraged using these methods.
Anthropomorphism is an action by which humans go beyond what is directly observable to make inferences of humanlike behavior within nonhuman entities. Aristotle suggested that other people were the required ingredient for an individual to obtain supreme happiness, and this would appear to be confirmed simply through our need to anthropomorphize. Piccinini emphasizes this tool by stating that although humans are known to anthropomorphize animals, it may not simply be a case of recognizing human traits within animals. It may be a case by which shared animal traits are recognized within humans, thereby questioning the role and authenticity of what it means to be human. Not all Piccinini’s work is directly related to the identity of being human. At times, the work she creates also relates to the role which humans play on our environment and the creatures within our care.
Nature’s Little Helpers was a series of work created by Piccinini in 2004 – 2005 to explore just that – the role that humanity plays and our responsibility in cleaning up the messes that humans create through consumption and natural resources. She questions with this body of work the paradox of humans intervening through technological means (genetically engineering) to create a solution to a problem that the initial intervention of human technology created. Specifically, within her piece Bodyguard (Figure 2) in which a creature is designed to help and aid an endangered bird in its struggle for survival. In this instance, Piccinini is utilizing the uncanny in a way which highlights and references political, social, and ecological situations. Whereas the uncanny can at times be thought of as simply a symptom of a work of art, in whatever form that work may take, it can also be thought of as a metaphor when used in social or historical contexts.  The simple answer to the question presented in Bodyguard is to utilize our natural resources in a manner which doesn’t cause a species to become endangered, but the answer that is actually present within the sculpture is the genetic modification and creation of yet another species to aid in the survival of the endangered species.
Piccinini doesn’t provide answers to the questions that she explores within the work she creates. There’s no right or wrong answer to be found or sides to be taken for her as an artist. The tools that she utilizes all lead to one concept – what does it mean to be human and what is our role in nature? She further reflects on how this role relates to the environment and animals around us. These topics have been discussed philosophically, socially, politically, and religiously since the technological age began. The hyper realistic techniques Piccinini uses and the uncanny images she creates through sociopolitical and technological situations engages the viewers without forcing the dialogue about the ramifications to be had from humans meddling. Piccinini is blurring the lines of what is real and unreal. She uses simple materials but complex tools to create a reality which is not so far from our own. The technological advances which she references are readily available, and although her creatures come from her imagination it is not entirely unfathomable for these situations to be present today. The possibility of this other truth which is formed from the recall of a memory that conflicts with a newly presented reality is what truly makes the world that Patricia Piccinini creates uncanny.
The exploration of the uncanny is as much about the experience an individual has emotionally and mentally as the experience he or she has visually. Hyper-realism is a fantastic tool to be utilized when an artist is attempting to create an uncanny experience; however, it is not the only tool at his or her disposal. The uncanny experience is primarily focused in the act of memory recall. When an uncanny event occurs, it is an experience which does not match a previously recorded experience within someone’s psyche. That individual may have a sense of some bizarre occurrence in an object individual, or event affecting them. This definition of the uncanny experience correlates directly with the concept of queerness. In English, the term queer directly correlates to something weird or bizarre. This could relate to a weird or bizarre sexual experience or to an individual’s performance of gender or individual identity as these aspects are recalled within the viewer’s being.
Just as Piccinini creates an intra-psychic conflict within her sculptures and installation to make them successful, queer individuals manifest as an experience which does not match with the expected understanding a person may have previously had. This conflict could correlate to how someone may be expected to act within a public versus private space, how one might act sexually, or how they may identify themselves to the outside world. A person adopts what might be labeled as a queer identity only through the process of memory recollection by the viewer. The viewer observes the individual whom has not yet been identified as queer. Once he or she is observed, the viewer then correlates what has been seen to what they have previously experienced or had been trained as socially acceptable. Any behavior that doesn’t match the expectation, or social norm, is then deemed to be queer behavior and creates an intra-psychic conflict. That which has previously been experienced is challenged and the viewer is now presented a person that has been revealed as a queer, or unheimlich, person.
Much as one does through the act of animism, which Piccinini directly explores through her sculptural installations, there is an uncanny queerness which is experienced when something previously believed to be only imagined is forced onto the viewer. When the ego is formed it looks for sources outside of the individual to create a defense against concepts that might implicate the destruction of the self. Children often use dolls, teddy bears, or toys as extensions of themselves or as a replacement of the mother figure. As the ego develops these concepts are rejected and repressed, allowing the child to form their own independent, self-sustaining identities. The moment when these repressed external identities are recalled creates an atmosphere in which the double, or a repetition and recollection of that which was once an extension of the self, can exist.
The concept of the double is emphasized within the anthropomorphic post-humans illustrated within Piccinini’s work. These creatures are made to fulfill a need for humanity and reflect strengths of humans by means of bioengineering while at the same time highlighting the separation of this strength from humanity. In terms of Freud, this would symbolize a castration or removal of what makes humanity strong and giving that human strength to another using transgenics. The subjects are neither human nor animal and create a sense of disembodiment through their combined parts. Fitting in neither role, they become an uncanny and queer new subject which the viewer is unsure where to place in terms of their own social narrative or identity.
Within my own work I have been focusing on the concepts of disembodiment, castration, memory recall, anthropomorphism, queerness, and the uncanny. My most recent sculptural installation, Consummation, has combined several elements to form a world which is both whimsical and uncannily queer. (Figure 3) Following in the footsteps of Piccinini, I have utilized the method of anthropomorphism to create a figure that has a face reminiscent of a human face. The body and fins of the figures are clearly fishlike; however, the face draws the viewer in because it is neither a fish nor a human. It is a dreamlike combination of each drawing the viewer to engage with the sculptures. The materials I used within the installation are not hyper-realistic in the same way Piccinini uses. The fins are made from construction silicone, which give them a lifelike and tactile quality akin to real fins. It also allows the fins to be positioned using a very representational method. The bodies are made from resin, which give them the ability to be semi-transparent and allow light to pass through them. This gives them a very lifelike quality. This projection also creates a very crude double of the fish from the sculptures’ shadows, further enhancing the whimsy and engagement within my installation, as the viewer actively traces where the shadow is originating from.
Although the sculptural details within the resin give them a realistic quality, they are left open and separate from the fins and the head. This allows the viewer to actively use memory recollection and mentally put the separate pieces together. This method of installation highlights the queerness of the figure by allowing the viewer to recognize that although these forms are in the throws of a reproductive cycle, they themselves are but separate pieces and would never be able to fully function as a living, breathing fish. This is where my installation, Consummation, differs from the installations which Piccinini created. My sculptures within this installation are not meant to be believed in the same way that Piccinini’s are; however, the fluidity of the forms and the way memory is activated produces a similar effect of whimsy and the uncanny.
The uncanny and queerness are represented both within my own work and the work of Piccinini; however, the methods and application of each are different. Although many would be drawn to Piccinini’s work due to the hyper-realistic quality of it, just as many would be drawn to my installation for the opposite reason. My work, although not hyper-realistic, creates a space in which there seems to be a revelation of that which is normally hidden. Consummation functions as a living, dreamlike state present within the real world. It is a queerly uncanny space which allows the viewer to place themselves within it and act as a participant in a world which they may otherwise be denied.
Bourseul, Vincent. « The “uncanny” and the queer experience », Recherches en psychanalyse, vol. 10, no. 2, 2010, pp. 242a-250a.
Delgarno, Paul. 2017. Pursuit – BEAUTIFUL AND UNSETTLING: THE WORLD OF ARTIST PATRICIA PICCININI. March 31. Accessed October 2018. https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/beautiful-and-unsettling-the-world-of-artist-patricia-piccinini.
Epley, Nicholas, Adam Waytz, Scott Akalis, and John T Cacioppo. 2008. “When We Need a Human: Motivational Determinants of Anthropomorphism.” Social Cognition 143-155.
Kelley, Mike. 2004. The Uncanny. New York, NY: Tate Liverpool.
Messenger, Jane. 2011. Patricia Piccinini: Once Upon a Time… North Terrace Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia.
Robertson, Jean, and Craig McDaniel. 2013. Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art After 1980. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Thompson, Nato. 2005. Becoming Animal: Contemporary Art in the Animal Kingdom. North Adams, MA: MASS MoCA Publications.
Figure 1 The Carrier – Patricia Piccinini – 2012
Figure 2 – Bodyguard – Patricia Piccinini – 2004
Figure 3 – Consummation – Phil Weasley 2018
Figure 4 – Consummation – Phil Weasley 2018
 Jean Robertson and Craig McDaniel. Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art After 1980. P. 312 (New York: Oxford University Press. 2013)
 Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny, (CommaPress.com 2018), https://commapress.co.uk/resources/online-short-stories/the-uncanny-sigmund-freud/
 Patricia Piccinini, The Carrier, (Patricia Piccinini 2012), http://www.patriciapiccinini.net/44/81
 Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny, (CommaPress.com 2018), https://commapress.co.uk/resources/online-short-stories/the-uncanny-sigmund-freud/
 Jean Robertson and Craig McDaniel.. Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art After 1980.P. 313 (New York: Oxford University Press. 2013)
 Jean Robertson and Craig McDaniel. Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art After 1980. P. 314 (New York: Oxford University Press. 2013)
 Jane Messenger. 2011. Patricia Piccinini: Once Upon a Time… P. 11 (North Terrace Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia.)
 Nicholas Epley, Adam Waytz, Scott Akalis, and John T Cacioppo. 2008. P. 143 “When We Need a Human: Motivational Determinants of Anthropomorphism.” (Social Cognition 143-155.)
 Nato Thompson. 2005. Becoming Animal: Contemporary Art in the Animal Kingdom. P. 105 (North Adams, MA: MASS MoCA Publications.)
 Mike Kelley. 2004. The Uncanny. P. 43 (New York, NY: Tate Liverpool.)
 Bourseul, Vincent. « The “uncanny” and the queer experience », Recherches en psychanalyse, vol. 10, no. 2, 2010, pp. 242a-250a