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.

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Synapse 6 residency

Anatomy Museum, Flinders University

Anatomy Museum, Flinders University


Anatomy and Histology

Laboratory and Museum

School of Medicine

Flinders University


May 23rd   2011

Some Background…

I’ve been the Artist-in-Residence at the Autonomic Neurotransmission Laboratory, Anatomy and Histology, Flinders University working in collaboration with Anatomist/Neuroscientist, Professor Ian Gibbins since 2009

Ian and I met in 2007 during our involvement with a project called With the Body in Mind- a multidisciplinary art/sciences public forum presented through Flinders Arts in Health and the South Australian Neuroscience Institute at Flinders University. Our initial explorations looked at diverse representations of the normal and abnormal body in images, text and sound.

Since then we’ve cultivated a rich working relationship  and have worked together on several significant art/science projects, most notably Not Absolute, a collaborative art/science development project and exhibition held at Flinders University Art Museum in 2009. It was during this project I became artist in residence in Anatomy and Histology, at Flinders.

Last year Ian and I were jointly awarded a Flinders University Teaching and Learning Innovation Grant to undertake our research project  entitled Translating the Body: the choreography of representation in anatomy teaching, a project that explored the role of two and three-dimensional forms of representation in the communication of functional human anatomy to medical students. Some of the themes and questions that fed our collaborative process during the Teaching and learning Innovation project included:

What is the student’s point of reference when learning anatomy?

Whose body are they learning?

It was an intense and fascinating project. We documented a series of 2nd Year BMedSci practical anatomy classes collecting data in the form of video-cued recall footage, digital stills and questionnaires. We noted that direct physical interactions between the students and some forms of representation (the models, specimens, etc) involving touch, gesture and language, sometimes incidental to formal learning, can reveal much about the intensity of the learning experience. Learning processes are highly personal yet due to the vast amounts of facts to learn there is little time for registering, let alone communicating subtle shades of difference and meaning of the body.

Direct, primary multi-sensory experience is crucial to the understanding of this infinitely complex subject. Each student must absorb and retain vast amounts of information and construct his or her own idealised model of the body, derived from their interaction with multiple specific examples: the anatomical specimens, the models, radiographic images, the textbook diagrams, the living body of the instructor and those of the students themselves.

The data we collected during the project- film, interviews, images, and questionnaires will form part of a rich resource for the current Synapse 6 Residency 2011. We keen to review the data to guide new research  that will focus specifically upon an exploration and creative interpretation of the ambiguities and uncertainties inherent in the embodiment process and the filtered learning experience.

Synapse 6 Residency 2011

The Filtered Body: the uncertainties of embodiment

Our Synapse 6  is project entitled The Filtered Body: the uncertainties of embodiment. During this creative research  project we plan to explore and create new forms of representational objects and digital media which encourage interaction through touch, gesture and language that facilitate more nuanced experiences of human anatomy.

This research will be based  in the anatomy laborartory and museum here at Flinders and so I am firmly ensconced here once again!

The Anatomy Teaching Laboratory & Museum in the School of Medicine at Flinders University is a unique environment- featuring the latest live transmission video and audio technology that allows the instructor to demonstrate detailed anatomical specimens on large high definition screens and by video-conferencing to remote sites. This multi-dimensional learning environment is highly valued by the students however, learning detailed human anatomy is highly complex and at times reductive. Each student must absorb and retain vast amounts of information and construct his or her own idealised model of the body, derived from their interaction with multiple specific examples: the anatomical specimens, the models, radiographic images, the textbook diagrams, the living body of the instructor and those of the students themselves.

The problem of understanding the body and its representation is a problem of diverse domains including cognitive science, philosophy, social sciences and the creative arts. Ian and I have been dogged in our determination to create opportunities that have enabled us both to explore and identify some of the critical intersections of our practises pertinent to both art and science communities.

Ian has commented: Catherine’s unique insights into the students’ interaction with the learning environment of the Anatomy Teaching Laboratory already have influenced the development of new approaches to teaching, and the proposed residency will accelerate this development. The production of collaborative creative works from the residency will provide an avenue for widely disseminating our ideas of what happens during learning about the body in ways the extend far beyond usual academic discourse and formal reporting.

As and artist, I feel I am benefiting in many ways from the opportunity to directly interact in the teaching and the learning and research environments and gaining insight into the current practices of the ways in which the human body is communicated .


Yesterday was our first day of the Synapse project and even though we have a history of working together  I feel we have only just scratched the surface in terms of the potential of this collaboration.




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