Twenty-first century beauty: Piccinini and ‘Once Upon a Time’

It’s an elusive thing, beauty.

Artists and scholars have devoted forests of paper, kilometres of canvas, gallons of paint – not to mention years, and often lives – to defining and capturing ‘the beautiful’.

Is a litter of mutant babies beautiful? How about a single babe with flippers instead of feet, an elephant’s trunk instead of a nose? Or a twelve-foot nest of human hair in which furry, antennaed witchetty grubs (each the size of a well-blubbered walrus) sleep their sluggy dreams while a young boy kneels on their slumbering backs? Surrogate mother-creatures, with endangered species nestled in the flesh of their rumps? Young children playing with stem cell blobs, or enveloped in the embrace of a genetically-modified nursemaid, or supporting the heavy head of an exhausted mer-grandparent?

Patricia Piccinini, 'The Long Awaited'

Patricia Piccinini’s sculptures are unsettling, grotesque, sweat-and-hair-excrescent, hyper-real impossibilities — and they are so very, very beautiful.

Patricia Piccinini, 'Surrogate (For the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat)'

Cutting straight to the most vulnerable facets of human society — newborn babies, young children, nursing mothers, careworn elderly — Piccinini explores the implications of controversial issues like genetic modification, stem cell research, and the human impact on the natural world, and shows (without moral judgement or even a whiff of preaching) what might be. What could be.

The future according to Piccinini is horrifying.

It is, nevertheless, touchingly human.

Indescribably lovely.

Patricia Piccinini, 'Surrogate (For the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat)

The pieces evoke so many emotions, so many concerns, so many uncertainties — and yet, or as a consequence, they are inspiring. Breathtaking. Twenty-first century beauty.

Dr Chad and I visited Piccinini’s ‘Once Upon a Time…’ exhibit at the Art Gallery of SA yesterday, and I cannot stop thinking about it. I haven’t been so moved by a collection in years. I’ve admired exhibitions. I’ve been impressed by the Victorian painter’s skill, the medieval sculptor’s eye for line, weight, translucence… But while the gorgeous Pre-Raphaelite canvases I adore so much give me goosebumps (the colour! the draftmanship! the detail – oh so much detail!) and they often spark stories in my mind while I look at them, Piccinini’s vision has beguiled me. I did not want to leave the perfectly-lit basement of the Gallery; I never wanted to stop looking at these awful-wonderful creatures.

In my world, beauty can be medieval, Pre-Raphaelite, magical. There are grand rooms filled with tapestries, flying ships, enchanted jewels, sinister witches out for blood. But it is also home to dark woods, decaying cities, and disturbing-beautiful creatures like Piccinini’s.

If you’re in Adelaide before June 26, you can behold these wonders for yourself at the Art Gallery of SA.

Patricia Piccinini, 'We Are Family'




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