Patricia Piccinini

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Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Adelaide; Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane

Patricia Piccinini's work is not just another sampler of the art and technology fad currently doing the rounds in Australian art, nor is her use of digital computer imagery primarily concerned with a social critique of late capitalism. Rather, her work is preoccupied with exploring the relationship between contemporary consciousness and the visual rhetorics of advertising. Specifically, her images provoke questions concerning the psychology of the Lacanian consciousness in relation to the fantasised 'objet petit a' and the idealised egoic self. Her mimicry of the fetishised quality of advertising images provides insight into their ability to serve as objects of desire and paradigms of identity.

Piccinini's recent digital images include a range of works 'starring' Sophie Lee, the television icon of adolescent seduction. Lee plays a series of roles, or rather feminine stereotypes, appropriated from the stock of advertising tropes-enchanted nymph, contented mum, seductive vamp. In some pictures Lee cradles or yearns for the artist's LUMP infant, which functions as a futuristic and fetishised commodity object. These photographs of Lee are transposed on to virtually real digitally produced backgrounds which consist of abundant flowers which appear to be plastic, shiny, and clean. This generates an ambience which is sweet and delightful, and is indicative of the charming appeal of the cute advertising image, which is fundamentally gormless yet nevertheless contributes to the proliferation of the absorbing auratic spectacles which feature in much of the advertising that exists in contemporary culture.

But, what is the nature of this auratic appeal, this attraction? it seems more than coincidental that Piccinini's childlike images resemble naive toylands. They are like a magical mirage which promises a glittering and all-consuming narcissism. In this sense, they can be related to Lacan's propositions concerning the 'mirror phase'. By looking in the mirror the infant identifies and internalises images of itself and others. Consequently, the sense of self which develops is predicated not on an individualised subjectivity, but on a social subjectivity which is defined and constructed in response to others. The infant desires wholeness, as during the process of mirror phase development, the child ' ... is necessarily split between what it feels (fragmentation, "the body-in-bits-andpieces") and what it sees (the image of itself as a gestalt, as a visual whole) '. [1] This attraction to the gestalt is driven by the desire to attain unitary contentment, the so-called ego-ideal, but it is an illusory quest. The instinctual imperative to reach this ideal is a compulsion expressed throughout our lives, and this is precisely the drive which so much advertising seeks to exploit. Piccinini's images are therefore a corollary of this process, by assuming the guise of advertising's persuasive strategies her images also offer the appearance of complete gestalts which promise self-fulfillment through the purchase and consumption of a product.

Piccinini's images are redolent with promises of fulfillment and satisfaction-if we purchase the LUMP, we will be happy, our desires will be requited. These images are fairytales, simulated fantasies derived from advertising cliches. According to Lacan, fantasies are intrinsic to the process of the subject's relationship with the object-cause, the petit objet a. The objet petit a is the object(s) upon which our desires fixate, and are like extensions of the process instigated during the mirror phase. Desire and fantasy are crucial in this process, because fantasy gives ' ... the coordinates of the subject's desire, specifies its object, and locates the position the subject assumes in it. lt is only through fantasy that the subject is constituted as desiring: through fantasy, we learn how to desire.' [2] Piccinini's images replicate the object-cause (objet petit a) of desire in its advertised format, but they remain as images and will never ultimately satisfy desire. Our possession of the object, or the idea of the object, cannot satisfy us as desire will always locate another object after which to yearn, to fantasise. lt is this propensity to idealise, to fantasise which Piccinini's works placate. It can then be argued that her work also suggests the idea that " ... the reality of the social universe turns out to be an illusion that rests on overlooking the real of our desire." [3]

Is Piccinini then illustrating the viewpoint that we possess an advertised unconscious? Jurgen Habermas was preoccupied with the notion that late capitalism was participating in a process of colonising interior consciousness. If the commodified unconscious of the Post Modern era exists, it may be ably demonstrated by Don De Lillo in his novel White Noise. At one point the novel's main character notices that his six year old daughter is talking in her sleep. Fascinated by this phenomena he listens to her unconscious dreamings. He is surprised when he realises she is saying "Toyota Celica, Toyota Celica". [4] Lacan has stated that the unconscious is like a language, and continually absorbs information in the social realm. In turn, the unconscious informs the conscious in a recurrent interface between fantasy and mistaken objecthood. Therefore, in some respects, the ideology of consumerism is the ideology of the unconscious. Images of the commodity become fetishised, and this is why Piccinini's images so easily assume the enchanting attraction of the unitary fetish object.

There is the danger of overstating the case for consumerist determinism in Piccinini's pictures. The artist's oxymoronic LUMP, with its grotesque cuteness, and the glib advertising lingo that accompanies the images directly expresses a form of social critique. But, there is also a more telling psychological dimension to these images, a dimension which is more concerned with the replication of the visual qualities of advertising as fetish objects, rather than instituting forms of iconoclastic subversion. The strategy of mimicry implicit in her work leads to superficiality at times, a superficiality intrinsic to the illusions of surface appearances, and allusions to the auratic quality of the advertising image. They resonate with the dictates of our desire, with the urge to fantasise, and in this sense should be recognised as the prescient examples of the power of the seductive advertising image.


[1]Grosz, Elizabeth, Sexual Subversions, Alien & Unwin, NSW 1989, p.22.

[2] Zizek, Slavoj, Looking Awry: an Introduction to Jacques Lacan through popular culture, MIT Press, Cambridge Mass. 1991, p 6

[3]Zizek, Slavoj, 1bid., p 6

[4] I am Indebted to Justin Clemens for drawing my attention to this example