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Of all the galleries in Australia, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) with its combined art and scientific collections, is best placed to offer such a playground to Patricia Piccinini and guest curator Juliana Engberg. In addition to utilising the temporary exhibition galleries, they were able to persuade the institution to let them into its museum displays to position Piccinini’s work firmly at the nexus of art and science.
The first intervention into the permanent displays was Bottom Feeder (2009), which responded to the theme of environmental degradation in the diorama where taxidermic sea birds sit amongst rubbish washed up on shore. Bottom Feeder is a propositional creature, a genetically engineered ‘what if’ designed to eat the waste encumbering its neighbours. Next door, in an exhibition dedicated to the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, the bronze skulls of two more of Piccinini’s fictitious animals were slotted into a display case, as a neat summation of the thesis behind the exhibition’s title.
Another provocative redeployment of the gallery’s resources was to hand the attendants small sculptures, each called The Offering (2009), and ask them to encourage the public to touch these almost human dozing babies. Visitors were consequently drawn into a relationship with one of the creatures, rather than just passively observing the relationships within the artist’s works. It also provided a point of access for those who were unfamiliar with the work or confronted by it, and gave them an opportunity to ask questions, enriching their experience of the exhibition.
With the exception of Bodyguard (for the Golden Helmeted Honeyeater) (2004)—the first of Piccinini’s ‘caretaker’ series, intended to protect the endangered Gold Helmeted Honeyeater—and the beautiful but terrifying lamprey-like bronze, The Uprising (2008), which sat in an antechamber, the exhibition proper focussed on infants of various kinds. Two surrogate mothers and their charges, Surrogate (2005) and Big Mother (2005), were followed by more ambiguous works. The video The Gathering (2007) invites the viewer to interpret its brief narrative, not from the point of view of the child who sleeps on the bedroom floor throughout, but from that of the rabbit-marsupial mutants that come across her and offer a glimpse of their own progeny in a reciprocal gesture.
This scenario is expanded in the exhibition’s climactic work, Perhaps the world is fine tonight (2009). The skills of TMAG’s exhibition staff were allowed to shine, or glow perhaps, in this diorama of a crepuscular highland setting with its fingers of dolerite, as favoured by the nineteenth-century painter WC Piguenit. At its centre was another sleeping girl, surrounded, not by mutants this time, but by taxidermic Tasmanian devils, disturbingly plentiful here in death. There was an additional form, bulbous and sparsely hairy, born aloft by two eagles like baby-delivering storks or Zeus abducting Ganymede, which underscored the doubt expressed in the work’s title.
The exhibition continued with two works where an unambiguous amicability exists between the human child and Piccinini’s chimerical inventions—Undivided (2004), where the wombat incubating creature from Surrogate first appeared, and The Long Awaited (2008). While both of these were charming in a way, the repulsive side of their grotesquery was reinforced by the presence of the profoundly forlorn Foundling (2008). In this room there were also several drawings, which are not so often seen, that brought an extra dimension to this sculpture-dominated exhibition.
The tone shifted in the final space where two of the artist’s automotive-inspired works featured. Taking a different angle on the idea of evolution, Piccinini has imagined Vespa motor scooters as living creatures—a more fantastical meditation on the possibilities at the nexus of nature and technology. I had been told, while patting an Offering, that while women responded well to the biogenetic works, male visitors tended to be wary of them; so here was something to engage the mechanically-minded as well.
‘Patricia Piccinini: Evolution’ has been enormously successful for the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, and has come at the right time to demonstrate the role that this institution can play in the life of the State, if it is able to mount well-funded exhibitions by artists of international standing.