What it means to be human

The eye of the beholder: perceptions of beauty and expressions of empathy

Forum held to coincide with Once Upon a Time Patricia Piccinini

May 28th, 2011, 2pm at the Radford Auditorium ,Art Gallery of South Australia

Speakers: Catherine Truman and Ian Gibbins      Chair: Jane Lomax-Smith

This was the last in the series of forums entitled What it means to be human organised by Linda Cooper for the Art Gallery of South Australia to tease out some issues raised by the Patricia Piccinini exhibition : Once Upon a Time.

After a brief introduction by David O’Connor and Jane Lomax-Smith, Ian and I spoke for 10 minutes each then the audience were able to ask questions and make comments.

Here’s my 10 minutes worth….

For the last few years I’ve been artist in residence in the Anatomy and Histology Department in the School of Medicine at Flinders University working closely with Ian Gibbins because we share a fascination in the ways in which human anatomy is translated and communicated in our respective fields of art and science.

The American philosopher John Dewey was interested in how an organism functions within a particular environment- looking at the influence of actual life experience upon how we make, view and interpret art. He said one must give into one’s senses in order to develop sound theory.      I really want to believe that…of both art and science… because it has the ring of humanity about it.  And I think…and feel… that Patricia Piccinini may very well agree.

Participating in this forum has provided me with a catalyst to think about the evolution of my reaction to the exhibition from a very personal perspective and professionally as an artist.

Much has already been discussed about the actual works in the exhibition, but what I’m about to say is more a story of my appreciation of the beauty and empathy I find in Patricia Piccinini’s approach to her art- impressions I’ve gained through my experience of the works and from hearing her speak about her practice.

So I’m going to begin with my first raw response :

Upon descending the stairs I was swept up in the emotion pervading the space.  Before I’d really begun to register the individual works in the reduced light, I felt a sense of drama, and the possibility of confrontation and unease. Then as the works came into the foreground I found myself becoming involved in the various sets of relationships being played out. I began to engage in the life in the works and guess at the narratives.   Some of the characters seemed to be beseeching me to feel something for them…I was aware of feeling provoked by their sweetness, softness, roundness -their newborn sensitivity, their pinkness and baby blueness, and every seductive fleshy, hairy detail. And I remember experiencing an unsettling sense of disorder.  I felt like I was inside their story, not as an outsider or even as an observer, but rather a participant…perhaps even a perpetrator.  I even imagined I could smell their warmth as I came close up. And as I became aware of the emotion they had elicited, I felt it almost odd that they hadn’t acknowledged my curiosity, my empathy – that they were ‘fixed’ and absorbed – frozen in their own experience… and then I felt strangely invisible.

To be so taken up in the emotion, the micro expressions, the exquisite detail, and the narrative, I must have believed the characters and there was a moment then when I stood and marvelled -conscious of the level of illusion. I remember consciously dislocating myself and standing outside of the works –a bit at a distance and shifting my attention to their materiality… testing for the successes and failures in the illusion…someone made these…must be a whole team of people…spent a lot of time on these, the detail is phenomenal, even their mouths are wet…the corners of their eyes, the give of the skin where they touch…so much care…must have been expensive… then I dutifully made a whole series of guesses at what they were made of and how they were made. And finally I wondered about Piccinini as a person- what is she like…must be very tenacious I thought…

A week or two later I heard Piccinini speak about her life and practice and learned a little more.

Firstly and importantly I learned that she is clearly satisfied with the outcomes of her work and that she employs a team of people to make her ideas come to life.

This is not a new way of producing art. Many artists work in this way. What is more interesting to me is the fact that Puccinini is able to communicate the intricacies of her concerns, feelings and emotions about her ideas to the people that work for her so clearly that the final work is satisfying to her. The nature of these connections is obviously quite sophisticated and I know from personal experience it is quite challenging to translate a personal idea through the skills of others into an artwork and maintain the original intent.

Yes…this forum is about beauty and empathy…this is my personal perspective of beauty and empathy.  This level of connection with process and ideas between artist and collaborators contain elements of both. These are the aspects of Piccinini’s practice – the careful negotiation of her ideas and the meticulous skill in the way they are expressed, that I find particularly beautiful and moving. And although I do eventually engage with the broader philosophical and bioethical issues embedded in the narratives, it is the fact that Puccinini seems so compelled to communicate to a general audience in the way she does that becomes most poignant.  The artist told us that she has control over every aspect, every single detail-so these are indeed handmade works.

I am an artist who hand-makes objects about the human body- and for many years I’ve been particularly interested in the intersections between artistic and scientific anatomical representation. In this exhibition I’ve found some interesting parallels with some very beautiful, highly realistic, exquisitely handmade anatomical wax works made in Italy in the 18th century.

The waxes were made by skilled ‘artisans’ under the strict guidance of a museum director/naturalist and physiologist called Felice Fontana. The collection was made during the 1770’s for Grand Duke Leopold and still resides in La Specola Museum in Florence.

Fontana gathered a group of artisans together to carry out his vision….and his instructions were that he didn’t want his employees to know anything about anatomy he wanted them to behave as if they were ‘tools in his hands’- an impossible notion when you’re dealing with human beings…

These works were made in the 18thcentury to teach people about their bodies and they signified the spirit of the enlightenment and the exploration and knowledge gained through scientific approach. The wax workers experimented widely and developed amazing techniques such as the addition of crushed pearl and gold dust in the wax to give the bones a sinews a soft opalescent glow. The attention to detail is awe-inspiring. These works are anatomically correct and are still in their original cases. They have been on continuous display since 1775 and still attract medical practitioners and artists and the general public from all around the world.

The curator of the Specola collection told me that museum documents show that the audience reaction to the collection was as divided in the 18th century as it is today- some were reviled and some were absolutely fascinated. Nearly everyone walking into the first room of models recoils at the hyper-realism.    Nothing much has changed!

Puccinini knows ‘the body’ through drawing and painting and taking images of it and her employees know it through making these images into 3 dimensional entities and interpreting her words. I think Patricia Puccinini uses all her tools respectfully and that she has extraordinary tenacity in giving form to her questions. Her ideas are complex and confronting yet she manages to render them in such away that they are accessible.    Piccinini taps into a universal sense of empathy.

This level of caring about the communication of her ideas is paramount to the reason we are sitting here talking about these issues now.

And although the works are about current issues there is a certain timelessness in terms of how they are created and in the physical beauty they express and even in the emotions they elicit from us as an audience.

About Catherine Truman

Biographical Statement 2011 Catherine Truman is co-founder and current partner of Gray Street Workshop in Adelaide, South Australia. Established in 1985, it is one of Australia's longest running artists' co-operatives. She has traveled and exhibited widely nationally and internationally and is represented in a number of major national and international collections including the Pinakothek Moderne Munich, Museum of Auckland, National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Victoria, Queensland Art Gallery, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Powerhouse Museum Sydney, Art Gallery of South Australia and Artbank In 2007 she was awarded an Australia Council Fellowship and selected as a Master of Australian Craft 2008-2010. Truman qualified as a practitioner of the Feldenkrais Method in 1999 and uses the body as a starting point in her work. Her work has always been informed by a strong political consciousness. Current interests lie in the ways in which human anatomy has been translated through artistic process and scientific method – specifically how the experience of living inside a body has been given meaning and the role of new technologies in the translation, expression and expansion of our individual and shared experiences of the human body. She has researched historical and contemporary anatomical collections world-wide and has participated in a number of art/science- based projects such as Reskin an ANAT Wearable technology Lab, Australian National University, With the Body in Mind (a multidisciplinary art/sciences forum presented through Arts in Health, Flinders Medical Centre and Not Absolute an exhibition of collaborative works by artists and medical researchers and scientists held at Flinders University Art Museum, 2009. In 2008 Truman was invited to participate in Thinking Through the Body (ARTLAB) –an interdisciplinary research project exploring the use and potential of touch, movement and proprioception in body-focused interactive art practices co-coordinated by Dr George Khut and Dr Lizzie Muller. The first public presentation of this research was held in Performance Space, Sydney, 2009. Thinking Through the Body continues to operate as a research ensemble. Since 2009 Truman has been artist in residence in the Autonomic Neurotransmission Laboratory, Anatomy and Histology, Flinders University, Adelaide. In 2010 Truman and neuroscientist, Professor Ian Gibbins were awarded a Teaching and Learning Innovation grant (Flinders University) to carry our their research project entitled: Translating the Body: the choreography of representation in anatomy teaching. Truman has just been awarded a ANAT Synapse residency to further her collaboration with Gibbins. Their research is focused on the exploration of the role of two and three dimensional forms of representation in the communication of functional human anatomy to students of medical science.
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