Patricia Piccinini quietly counts the number of her artworks being installed at the Warrnambool Art Gallery.
Wooden crates scattered around the near-empty room are filled with sculptures that could have come from some mutant future world.
One of the opened works is a sphinx formed from sexual and other body organs. Another is a massive taxidermied peacock balancing on the end of a bed frame — dwarfing a curious child and a deformed being.
Piccinini, 48, is one of Australia’s best-known contemporary artists, both at home and internationally, her success built on blurring the lines between dream and nightmare, humanity and nature, imagination and dark prophesy, science and mythology.
For the last 20 years her life-like silicon creatures have seemed to suggest genetic meddling will lead humanity to a dark place.
But the artist says her works are more about asking larger questions, rather than making alarming statements.
“I think initially there is a kind of repulsion. They have a repellent effect because they’re so different and it’s in our DNA to be suspicious of ‘the other’,” Piccinini explains.
“But I don’t think the work is so grotesque or abhorrent that the viewer thinks I can’t go there.”
Piccinini points to her Sphinx work, which uses penile shapes and a womb and which she admits “not many people will understand”.
“If you’re not interested in something then you won’t get it, but we have this idea in art that if you don’t get it then the artwork is almost a failure,” she says.
“Often the viewer (feels) they are the failure. They think ‘I’m not educated enough or I’m not in the club’. But that idea is really bad for the art world because if anyone wants to understand this work they’re going to have to work a bit, because it’s not easy. It’s not immediate.”
She emphasises that her work isn’t scientific, but there’s little doubt Piccinini takes her cues from scientists pushing the genetic frontiers.
She cites a case in the United Kingdom where a mother donated her uterus to her daughter who was born without one.
Her own interest in science has tragic origins.
“I was always interested in ideas to do with the body and that came out of living in a household where my mum was sick,” she said.
“Mum had cancer all throughout my teenage years and she died. She had stomach cancer and if we could have grown another stomach or another liver we would have done it. I would have done anything.
“And that’s where I became interested in the natural and the artificial. I don’t care if it’s artificial ... I just want my mum to live.”
At least once a week Piccinini gets calls from medical journals hoping to use her work alongside stories, either for or against genetic engineering.
The artist herself is a supporter.
“I actually think it’s good. But I’m wondering how it’s going to affect our relationships to other animals ... I’m interested in the boundaries between species,” she said.
Piccinini’s The Touch of Another opens at the Warrnambool Art Gallery today and runs until June 12.