A Critical Analysis of Patricia Piccinini's Art: Re-presenting Biotechnology

”A face only a mother could love: Patricia Piccinini’s offspring” - By Peter Hennessey (2002)

Stem cells are pluripotent; they can differentiate into any type of cells, given the right stimulus. Such versatile cells promise an approach to cure even the most critical illnesses. It is this therapeutic potential that draws the interest and fervor of researchers. It is also this immense potential – to alter life as we know it – that attracts the attention of Australian artist Patricia Piccinini, inspiring her to create a series of anthropomorphic sculptures. Through art, Piccinini contributes to the global debate on this controversial technology.

In Piccinini’s Still Life with Stem Cells (2002), a little girl can be seen cuddling and stroking blobs of skin-covered organisms on the floor. The title suggests that these unsightly, shapeless lumps resulted from stem cell research. With their glossy flesh–like surfaces and folds of flesh, these transgenic organisms would have seemed unapproachable, perhaps even sinister, if not for the maternal acceptance by their gently smiling caretaker. Like the genetic technology it is commenting on, Still Life with Stem Cells is contentious; it draws support and flak in equal parts. Some museum–goers see the work as an incisive comment on the unpredictability of technology while others are repulsed by the grotesque nature of the six ‘stem cells’. By inspecting this art, we gain an appreciation in the ethical complexities of stem cell technology and understand that caution must guide the technology’s development.

[Plate 1] Detail of one ‘stem cell’ revealing its close life-like, almost human, surface textures and contours.

The wisdom of repugnance

The blobs, while clearly engineered by Man, have their own lives. Folds of blemished skin suggest growth and age. Orifices represent means to intake sustenance and excrete waste matter. A thin layer of hair provides a mechanism to regulate basal temperature while a vertebrate suggests structural support for vital organs and a nervous system. Faithful rendering of surface textures contribute to the vitality of these lumps; the ‘stem cells’ are unnervingly life–like. This hyperrealism of the ill– defined lumps makes them all the more confrontational. They are “not quite animals, but more than meat” (Michael, p. 4, 2003). They do not resemble any form of living organisms but seem oddly familiar. Their skin resembles that covering our own flesh – pinkish beige with slight blotches – yet their forms are disturbingly novel.

The disquiet evoked by the stem cells may be due to an instinctive wisdom. Leon Kass (1997), an outspoken critic against embryotic stem cell research, reminds that:

Indeed, in this age in which everything is held to be permissible so long as it is freely done, in which our given human nature no longer commands respect, in which our bodies are regarded as mere instruments of our autonomous rational wills, repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity. Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.

Piccinini’s visceral stem cell sculptures suggest that genetic technology willfully dismantles and reassembles DNA to produce unsettling results. This repugnance one feels is an intuitive warning against the transgression of what is unspeakably profound and a reminder to thread carefully in this revolutionary branch of science.

Who shall bear the risks?

The ambivalent combination of familiar textures on unfamiliar forms represents the unexpected side effects of genetic research too. Sarah Chan and John Harris (2007), in their essay In Support of Human Enhancement, advocates the use of enhancement technology, be it to engineer viral immunity, increase protection to coronary diseases or reduce susceptibility to cancer. They paint an ideal situation in which advanced bioengineering raises the standard of living and claim that there is a “moral imperative” to use such tools for “the benefit of future generations”. Chan and Harris argue that, throughout history, medicine had always been risky in its infancy stages, and that technology can be developed to the extent such that its benefits outweigh its potential risks. However, history is different from the present and genetic enhancement must be understood based on the current context. In the past, medical experiments involved smaller demographics and did not alter the fundamental physical characteristics of a human. Genetic alterations, however, create irreversible physiological changes on a molecular level and have significant repercussions beyond the field of medicine. The quest towards successful genetic technology, as Chan and Harris implicitly agree, carries inherent risks.

And while positive improvements – increased intelligence, longevity or muscle strength – are the goals of research, it may not necessarily be its results. Francis Fukuyama (2004, p.2), an outspoken critic against human alteration, suggests that “modifying any one of our key characteristics inevitably entails modifying a complex, interlinked package of traits” and the eventual outcome cannot be easily anticipated. The risks from genetic research, should they materialize, may be too heavy to shoulder. Even advocates of genetic research should acknowledge these risks. If the forms produced are not useful or appealing – as in the case of Piccinini’s hyperrealistic ‘stem cell–like organisms’ – who would bear responsibility? What can be done for these unpredicted casualties of stem cell research? Would they be dismissed as inevitable risks that did not pay off?

Barking up the wrong tree

The girl’s nonjudgmental care over her charges recalls the Madonna–and–Child motif, a theme often explored by artists. In Michelangelo’s Pieta, Mother Mary tenderly held the inert Jesus on her lap. Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde pieces, Henry Moore’s metallic sculptures and Ng Eng Teng’s ceramic works explore this recurrent theme too. By evoking this image of a surrogate maternal figure, Piccinini not only draws on the collective experiences revolving around this traditional motif but also reinterprets it in the modern context of biotechnology advancements.

[Plate 3] Detail of sculpture showing the serene countenance of this little girl.

To the girl, these ‘stem cells’ are “worthy of care, objects of her absorbed attention and unselfconscious touch”; she has set up “a family arrangement and a social engagement that in her mind have a logic and emotion” (Michael, p.4, 2002). It does not matter, not to the girl anyway, how these transgenic organisms appear. Like a Madonna, she accepts them unconditionally.

This selfless acceptance of unsightly cocoon–like lumps brings into mind one other comment by Fukuyama (2004, p.1). He explains that “we all possess a human essence that dwarfs manifest differences in skin colour, beauty and even intelligence”. It is this appreciation for the intrinsic spark of life which positions the girl as the organisms’ nonjudgmental caretaker. Michael Sandel (2004, p.54) shares similar sentiments with Fukuyama and explains:

Appreciating the gifted quality of life constrains the Promethean project and conduces to a certain humility. It is in part a religious sensibility. But its resonance reaches beyond religion.

The girl in Piccinini’s art is an expression of the artist’s opinions. Like her creation, Piccinini (2002) is not troubled with whether this technological transformation is good or bad; she finds these concerns “both too simplistic and a little academic”. Instead, she sees the works as her children and “wants the best for them”. Like a maternal figure, she respects the inherent value that these creatures possess – their “gifted quality of life” – no matter their appearances or provenances.

The little girl in Piccinini’s sculpture, and Piccinini herself, reminds us that we must be prepared to accept the unpredicted consequences of genetic research, no matter how unsavory it may be. They suggest that we need to move beyond concerns about genetically improving physical traits and focus on the inherent value that each individual has.

Stem cell research – its unpredictability and implications

Still Life with Stem Cells is not an installation in which the viewers are enfolded within the space of the artwork. Rather, it is a sculpture which relegates the viewers into the position of observers and distances itself from them. In this art, the girl and her charges are very still, frozen in action. Historically, a still life (or natura morte) was often an allegory on the transience and unpredictability of life (Michael, p.4, 2002). The tableau–effect of the still life dramatizes the nature of genetic engineering and the viewers stand apart to contemplate the issues raised:

Firstly, stem cell technology, by itself, is neither good nor ill; it simply is a science that can be put to use. The intuitive uneasiness against such manipulation of the building blocks of life suggests a need to examine the moral basis of such research carefully even as the technology advances.

Then, the technology may not produce the desired modifications to the human body, no matter how we may wish it. Many would probably want a share of the sweet fruits of biotechnology breakthroughs but, should the results be less glorious than expected, maybe even disastrous, who would be responsible? The capacity for unpredictability of this nascent technology reminds its overenthusiastic proponents to remain composed despite its immense potential, cautioning against reckless experimentation in stem cell research.

Ultimately, stem cell research is a result–oriented science, one focused on producing measurable improvements to physiological characteristics. By situating her art within a social unit of a girl and her misshapen charges, Piccinini reminds us not to miss the forest for the trees: to move beyond concerns about improving physical traits and pay equal – if not more – attention to the intangible spirit that all living organisms have; and to proceed carefully through the quagmire of ethical dilemmas surrounding stem cell technology, all the time being guided by an encompassing respect for this intangible “gifted quality of life”.

This article was originally written for  WP2201E From Humans To Posthumans.


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