The first thing you see at the entry to "Hug: Recent Work by Patricia Piccinini" is a pristine automobile tire, a Jaguar tire to be exact. It appears to have an organic protuberance spilling out and over its top side and thus is an eerie combination of the natural and the manufactured. And that's what makes it a perfect introduction to the current exhibition at the Frye Museum.
Piccinini's art is all about the intersection of hi-tech science and nature. She imagines a future world in which customized life forms have been created through technology. In her world and her art they exist in harmony with the life forms created through evolution, but she can't help wondering if that harmony will exist when such crafted life forms join us in the real world.
Key to understanding her art is awareness of its philosophic underpinnings. These emerge from her sophisticated understanding of the potential power of new biological tools. Through cloning, genetic engineering, stem cell research, bioelectronics we humans already have the capacity to create interspecies hybrids. Piccinini is asking if we have developed the necessary ethical standards and intellectual tools to use that knowledge wisely. And can we ever know what the unintended consequences of such developments will be?
She uses her sculpture, video, drawings and photography to explore these issues. The tire, a fiberglass sculpture, is probably the least shocking of her creations. It is useless as a tire with that massive bulge, but the growth is beautifully formed. This work sacrifices utility for beauty. Can we live with such a compromise? What are its long-term implications? These are questions that arise throughout the exhibit.
Directly behind the tire is a black box theater where "When my baby (when my baby)," a three-and-a-half-minute digital video, runs in a loop. The image is that of a fleshy, hairy, folded surface with little globules moving about just underneath. Not terribly appealing at first, but then it gradually transforms into a face, and somehow it's not distasteful at all. Is this the sort of creature we will learn to live with in the future?
In the next gallery a life-sized, totally realistic statue of a casually dressed woman leans backward. A hairless, pink-skinned, tailed creature completely covers her face; its front legs (or are they arms?) encircle her head. Is the thing attacking her? Or is it embracing her? It's an apt metaphor for the vexing issues at the heart of this artist's work.
More of her fantastic creatures appear in nearby leather "nests." This grouping called "Progenitor (for the Leadbeater's Possum)" is imagined by the artist as consisting of bioengineered animals created by scientists to prevent the extinction of the doomed possum. Piccinini lives in Australia where habitat destruction has put this possum on the endangered list.
Another species protector is a sharp-toothed, big-eared creature that the artist has fashioned to save the Golden Helmeted Honeyeater, a small Australian bird that is also endangered. Piccinini wonders if we might well have greater luck saving species by creating protectors for them rather than by trying to preserve their habitats. But beware the unintended consequences.
She also has works that blur the line between animal and machine. In addition to that growing Jaguar tire, there are tadpole-like motorcycles that the artist presents as machines in the early stage of their development.
In various media she challenges us to live in harmony with these manmade forms. Are we or they more vulnerable, she asks. What will be our responsibilities to the new creatures we create? Can we interact with them free of preconceived notions and expectations? Working in meticulous detail with the highest-quality materials, she's created a hyperrealistic futureworld that demands clearly defined ethical boundaries, and we don't have them yet.
Piccinnini was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and moved to Australia when she was 7. She resides there today with her husband and two young children. Since 1991 her work has been exhibited worldwide. She represented Australia in the 2003 Venice Biennale and has had solo exhibits internationally. This, her first exhibition in the United States, was co-curated by Robin Held, Frye chief curator and director of exhibitions and collections, and Patricia Hickson, curator of the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa, where the exhibit was presented earlier this year.
Piccinini's exhibit is fine art in the garb of science fiction. Given present-day technologies and scientific knowledge, all that she has created is possible, and possible in the not-too-distant future. Her question to us is: Are we ready for what's to come?
'HUG: RECENT WORK by Patricia Piccinini' Frye Art Museum 704 Terry Ave. Through Jan. 6, 2008 622-9250 Free parking, free admission