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Freaky sculpture raises ethical, moral dilemmas

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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

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