How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!”
There was a time, when I was a child, when travelling fairs would feature freak shows. On display, in a usually smelly tent behind a gaudy façade, were bearded ladies, two-headed babies and myriad variations of human, or animal, deformities. These shows were hugely popular right up until the mid-twentieth century. Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man was a celebrity in Victorian England fêted by royalty and Todd Browning’s1932 film Freaks is considered to be a classic and is still shown in art cinemas.
But interest waned, either by choice or imposition. Exploiting such unfortunate people was considered insensitive, intrusive and, of course, very politically incorrect. The Guinness Book of Records still lists the tallest, shortest, heaviest people but that’s about it. The craving for the grotesque has faded in most of us and goes unsatiated in others.
So, what is Patricia Piccinini’s Metamorphosis at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam? Is it an old fashioned freak show or is it more than that? She describes her work as dealing with “unexpected consequences” and the bulk of the exhibition is made of life size, hyper-realistic sculptures of . . . err . . . freaks. The place where pigs and humans meet is prominent. There is Prone, a life-size human baby with a snout, a huge female pig suckling her off-spring that have distinctly human features. There is The Comforter, a young girl with very hairy legs seated on the floor in a corner cradling something that is neither human nor animal but has features of both. And, more disturbingly, a very young girl playing on her crumpled bed with an Alien-like creature while a peacock looks on.
There are other figures, all life-size, that have anatomical details in places where most people don’t even have places. What make these sculptures so disturbing is the fact that they are so real – a brave new world that is made of silicone, fibreglass, felt and human hair. Every pore in the skin is shown, every wrinkle on the sole of the feet. Some figures you feel empathy for as with the old, Neanderthal-like hairy couple holding each other in a loving embrace, for others you feel revulsion. There is one, thankfully curtained-off, room showing a three-wall video of giant squirming and evolving close-ups of parts of a body, human or otherwise, that seems to focus on folds, creases and orifices. I’m a not sure which bits of the body they were but they were certainly not bits to which I wanted to get up close and personal.
Now, it is difficult perhaps to use the adjectives grotesque and charming to describe the same thing but that’s what many of the pieces are. Some however, it must be said, are just downright grotesque, many are disturbing and some, to be honest, are disgusting. It has always been the function of art to shock and disturb. All great art movements initially caused outrage and took some getting used to. But that was because they were new, propagating ideas and techniques that were original and not adhering to any of the then accepted norms. Is this exhibition like that, is it work we will, in years to come, eventually accept as traditional like Rodin or Michelangelo or will we always find it odd, a novelty?
It is hard to decide if Ms Piccinini’s work is exploring the human condition or exploiting it. While one can admire the technique, which is astounding, and marvel at The Field installation which is impressive, I honestly don’t know what to make of this exhibition. Does it make me look anew at what it means to be human and think about what might have happened if genetics had developed differently and evolution taken a different path, or does it bring out the voyeur in me? I imagine you will have the same reaction but this is compulsive viewing. Many of the pieces are hard to look at, most of them are even harder to look away from. Michael Hasted 25th February 2023
Quotation from The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Patricia Piccinini’s Metamorphosis continues at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam until 4th June.