Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Freaky sculpture raises ethical, moral dilemmas

  • Print

WHAT IT IS: The Long Awaited, by Australian sculptor Patricia Piccinini. Currently on view at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, this hyper-realistic life-size work is part of Fairy Tales, Monsters and the Genetic Imagination, a travelling group show with a fairly high freakout factor.

WHAT IT MEANS: Piccinini depicts a little boy asleep with his "pet." What should be a cosy scenario is made disturbing by the fact that the companion animal in question is some sort of unidentifiable hybrid creature. Part manatee (maybe) and part elderly lady (perhaps), it is both monstrous and vulnerable, grotesque and touchingly tender. And it challenges our perceptions about the dividing line between the human and the animal.

The Melbourne-based Piccinini is fascinated by the 21st-century collision of science and nature. She creates large-scale works that reference stem-cell research, reproductive technologies, robotics, artificial intelligence and genetically modified organisms.

Her weird personal biosphere -- made up of beings that seem to be a mad-scientist mash-up of insect, marsupial and human DNA -- could come across as spectacular sci-fi-movie special effects. But her creative scenarios are neither shiny technological paradises nor hellish dystopias. Ambivalent and emotional, her works present the future in terms of new and complicated relationships.

Piccinini often depicts children interacting with strange hybrids that seem to have been created as playthings or even babysitters. Perhaps born into a brave new transgenic world, the kids take the existence of these creatures for granted, approaching them without fear or disgust.

In The Long Awaited, Piccinini uses silicon, fibreglass, human hair and plywood to achieve a level of realistic detail not often seen in contemporary art. She then applies this realism to a fantastically unreal scene, with unnerving results.

The child rests on the kind of bench often seen in art galleries, which could cause a few double-takes. Then there's the poky, pink fleshiness of the creature and the real hair on the boy, which possess the uncanny, almost-but-not-quite-alive quality seen in waxworks or humanoid robots. There's even something slightly unsettling about the everyday quality of the clothes, which look like they could have been picked up at Gap Kids.

WHY IT MATTERS: My initial reaction to this work was a sudden, shuddering recoil, but the longer I looked, the more I was drawn into the lovely and loving connection between the child and his friend. What at first seemed aggressively bizarre revealed an unexpected echo of sentimental old paintings of boys and their dogs.

Along with this melancholy emotional tug, the work possesses clear -- but never obvious or didactic -- moral urgency. The artist may be dealing with speculative futuristic technologies, but she is grappling with questions that artists have been asking since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein: Is it dangerous to play God and create life? If we make things that are human-like, where do we draw the line between the human and the monstrous? And if we choose to manufacture living beings to fulfil our needs and desires, what are our ethical obligations toward these creatures?


Art historian Alison Gillmor looks beneath the surface of newsworthy art.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 14, 2012 G6

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Feeling at home at Home Expressions

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A young goose gobbles up grass at Fort Whyte Alive Monday morning- Young goslings are starting to show the markings of a adult geese-See Bryksa 30 day goose challenge- Day 20– June 11, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • PHIL.HOSSACK@FREEPRESS.MB.CA 101130-Winnipeg Free Press Columns of light reach skyward to the stars above Sanford Mb Tuesday night. The effect is produced by streetlights refracting through ice crystals suspended in the air on humid winter nights. Stand Up.....

View More Gallery Photos


Are you planning to go visit the new polar bear, Humphrey, at the Assiniboine Park Zoo?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google