Patricia Piccinini

Patricia Piccinini’s recent exhibition “One Night Love” included a group of the furniture-sized, biomorphic fiberglass objects she calls Car Nuggets and five modular bas-relief wall panels made of plastic and embalmed in layers of glossy, quasi-holographic automotive paint. This year’s line, “Car Nuggets GL” (all works 2001), are almost interchangeable but are distinguished from each other by embossed linear designs and iridescent colors much like the variations offered by car manufacturers from model to model and further individualized by a range of familiar flamelike biker motifs. In the same way, the metallic orange surfaces of the five-panel modular wall work Carlo Guiliani One Night Lover are adorned by almost identical images of the face of the young protester (whose name is actually spelled Giuliani) killed by Italian police outside the G8 meeting in Genoa in July 2001.

The Car Nuggets look like prototypes dreamed up at the climax of some gifted young designer’s psychedelic binge. Their hypersensual undulations are totally sexual, and their slightly smug relationship to the automotive world is as dysfunctional as it is eager. Piccinini is clearly at home with these biomorphic high-tech lumps; indeed she projects onto them an ability to act and desire, saying that they, not we, “look for beauty in a world that is very problematic”—as if they embodied some kind of artificial intelligence. This link between AI, sexual desire, and manufactured life-forms has been constant in Piccinini’s work for several years. In a series called “Protein Lattice,” 1997, she created multimonitor video installations of roving, rodentlike synthetic organisms backed by photographs of nude female models posturing with mutant mice.

Piccinini is really running two very different art practices side by side. On the one hand, the humor of these Car Nuggets and her earlier SOs (synthetic organisms), despite all the artist’s protestations of sincerity, is profoundly apolitical and both campily ingenuous and immensely ingenious. This strain of her work—high-tech objects and mutant fashion photography—has been marketably cute and immensely successful. On the other hand, her video installations in other exhibitions have avoided this conflation of artistic edginess with seductive design, though the same virtual fauna ran wild in those works too. In The Breathing Room, 2000, for example, her digitally created mutant animals roamed the deep dark spaces of electronic soundscapes, counterpointed against large video projections of virtual flesh and a heaving synthetic orifice. In that powerful work, and in the trembling ocean waves of Horizon, 1998–2000, Piccinini disentangled AI from sci-fi. The virtual reproduction of nature became internal to the visual language of the work, which is that of Caspar David Friedrich’s sublimity: Fifteen video monitors in a line make a horizon with lapping virtual waves and moving clouds; the sun is frozen digitally at the same point in the sky, belying the video’s long duration. Her videos, therefore, are panoramic and cinematic, enclosing the viewer in ambiguity, whereas the Car Nuggets are domestic and friendly. But the friendliness is one-way; it’s an anthropomorphic projection, and certainly not in the least uncanny. In this show Piccinini’s use of technology seemed to be genuinely converging with that of large corporations; her critical gesture is not to indict twenty-first century culture’s contamination of the natural—so she’s not an antiglobalization fellow traveler—or even to deconstruct the division between nature and culture. Her contribution is more wonderful and sinister: She has constructed a narrative of wishful scientism for our times.

Charles Green