Beyond Human: A Review of Patricia Piccinini’s “Vespas”

By Eric Tweel

Above: The Lovers, 2011

They say that good art is transcendental – that it surpasses time and context to exist in the purely universal. While Patricia Piccinini’s work may not be eternalized, her art will no doubt be cherished by future generations for its strikingly perceptive foresight. Her principle intent is to challenge aesthetic conventions. Often, she does so by warping objects into disturbing and unattractive forms, eliciting reactions sharply in contrast to our professed empathy towards other living things. However, her Vespas collection is a notable departure from her trademark works in that she anthropomorphizes inanimate objects – small motorcycles called Vespas – in surprisingly beautiful ways. The results show that not only can we be repulsed by creatures genetically similar to us, but we can be captivated by the seemingly animated beauty of machinery.

 

Nest, 2006

Piccinini began the Vespas in 2006 with Nest, a heart-warming parent-child duo. A parent Vespa looks dotingly down with its dashboard eyes and handlebar ears at its young progeny. The child Vespa is much smaller, lighter in colour, and lacks many of the mature features of its (or his or her?) parent – the thick tires, cushioned seats, extended “neck,” and sophisticated lights. The collection was expanded in 2007 with Thicker Than Water, featuring two infant Vespas gazing upwards, their dashboards oddly reminiscent of a puppy’s eyes.

Thicker than Water, 2007

Diverging from the warm, loving scenes of the first two pieces, Piccinini’s The Stags features two large, apparently “male” Vespas. Dynamically arranged, this pair is entangled in some sort of combat, presumably a mating ritual as their title implies. Their antlers are a series of rearview mirrors attached to long metal rods. The most recent addition to Vespas is The Lovers, a return to the tranquility of the first two works. In this fourth pair of motorcycle-deer, a distinctly “female” Vespa is cuddling with her larger, darker-painted, antlered “male” companion.

By cleverly manipulating once lifeless vehicles and adapting them to scenes familiar to human experience, Piccinini forces us to reconsider our relationship with technology and our concept of life. In an age with highly advanced artificial intelligence and robotics, it often seems reasonable to place humans – and all sentient life – in the same class as complex machines. Yet Piccinini takes a unique view – rather than seeing this idea as dethroning humanity to the lowly status of machinery, perhaps machinery can in a sense share in our harmony. Indeed, all of her works have suggestions of the extraterrestrial despite using familiar subjects. Instead of bizarre new life coming from a faraway planet, it will be spawned in the laboratories of human ingenuity. It will be frightening and repellent at first, but if we can see past our differences, Piccinini is implying that our relationship can be as peaceful as the scenes she depicts.

 

The Stags, 2008

This may be naïve idealism. It certainly seems so in contrast to the dystopian trend in current popular culture. Instead of a violent Rise of the Machines, Paccinini envisions a harmonious coexistence of humanity and its creations. While she may be ignoring the several potential dangers of robots of high-order intelligence, it is a much-needed message in a discussion characterized by negativity. Even if Piccinini is wrong, her gaze is set towards the future, which in itself is a defining element of her style.

As the artist herself wrote, “The world I create exists somewhere between the one we know and one that is almost upon us.” Our ability to predict the future is the crowning achievement of humankind, and it is heartening to see this skill at use in contemporary visual art. Beyond reflecting her present society, Piccinini has taken it upon herself to predict our future – and the results are astounding.

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