By Tim Shepherd 

Internationally renowned artist Patricia Piccinini hopes her collection of life-like human-hybrid sculptures will inspire a discussion about the impacts of gene-editing and stem cell research.

For the first time ever, the entire ground level of Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) has been dedicated to a single Australian artist. Curious Affection displays Patricia Piccinini’s most recognisable sculptures from the past 20 years.

Speaking during a panel at the World Science Festival Brisbane, Piccinini says the artwork focuses on the ethical boundaries of genetic modification research.

The Young Family by Patricia Piccinini was inspired by Xenotransplantation, the procedure of growing organs one species to transplant into another. Credit: Tim Shepherd

A piece from 2002 The Young Family, is inspired by the science of Xenotransplantation—the transplantation of cells, tissues or organs from one species to another. One of the most well-known forms of Xenotransplantation involves growing organs such as hearts and kidneys inside pigs for transplantation into humans.

“I’m trying to have a conversation through the artwork with my community about the implications of science and how it changes the way we see each other and the relationships between what we see as natural and artificial; the relationships between us and other animals; us and the environment; us and our bodies. I think science changes those relationships dramatically,” she says.

Author of Stem Cells: Controversy at the Frontiers of Science, Elizabeth Finkel, says she interpreted Piccinini’s The Young Family as portraying a negative view of scientific advances of Stem-Cell research.

“My friends knew I was writing [Stem Cells: Controversy at the Frontiers of Science] and said you should check out Patricia’s work on still life of Stem-cells and The Young Family. So, I did at the time and I have to say my reaction was not positive because I felt it was dystopian and this was exactly what I was trying to combat in my book,” says Finkel.

Artist Patricia Piccinini wants her artwork to create discussion about the boundaries of gene-editing technology. Credit: Tim Shepherd

Piccinini disagrees, saying her sculptures are not intended to make value judgements or impede scientific advancement.

“I don’t think what I’m trying to do is put a stop on creativity in science or art. When it comes to a work like The Young Family I tried to present something that is beautiful but also complicated. The idea that she (a hybrid of a human and a pig) might exist is to me not horrific, because any life is valuable,” says Piccinini.

More recently, Piccinini says she has been inspired by advanced gene-editing technology CRISPR. This technology allows scientists to easily remove and replace sections of DNA thus providing opportunity to remove diseases and preventing them from being passed down through generations.

“I’m no expert, no expert. But I might be interested in what it means as a community to be able to change and choose how our progeny will come into the world and what that will be like and what that means for a whole bunch of other things like, how we relate to difference, will we tolerate difference? Will we become a much more homogenised society? I’m interested in those things,” says Piccinini.

Piccinini’s artwork has attracted international recognition, most recently, her exhibition Consciousness toured Brazil in 2016–17 and attracted more than 1.3 million visitors.