Crossing through the Diag, headed towards the Union, one cuts through the embrace of Mason Hall and the University’s art museum. The museum’s decorative, almost stained glass windows create a modern aesthetic, catering to a walk at any time of day. But as one nears the end of the building, an ominous feeling overcomes our traveler as they come across what appears to be an almost creepily realistic depiction of what might be a young girl. Holding a baby? Or maybe a chicken?
Without really knowing what is going on inside the front glass display of the UMMA, the vast majority of people in passing are confused with this exhibition. The composition of this piece brings forth a concept discussed all too often in the world of art and design: the introduction of uncomfortable depictions as works of art. The strategy of bringing forth uncomfortable ideas and visions into the world of fine art has a wide range of implications, posing an interesting experience for viewers of these works.
Artist Patricia Piccinini is known for using her art as a critique of the ethics that lie within certain scientific processes and man-made replications. As one looks closer at “The Comforter,” the piece depicts a young girl with excessive hair on her face and body. In her arms, she holds an underdeveloped, organic creature, unidentifiable from afar. This sense of strangeness that Piccinini employs in her work proves to be intentional, speaking to the problems of genetically modified scientific processes, using the object in the arms of the girl to allude to this theme.
“Patricia (Piccinini) has said that she feels ‘The Comforter’ is an incredibly optimistic work,” said UMMA curator Kathleen Forde.
An unusual statement for such a grotesque work, the piece has different implications from close up and far away. In passing, one may see a child holding a baby, a perhaps more expected, understood concept. But as one takes time to zoom in on the piece, graphic details become apparent, leading viewers to ask themselves: “Why is this piece on this campus” or “Why does it exist in the first place?”
“Viewers can visit the exhibition in the museum and then have a different relationship when viewing it from outside… or vice versa,” Forde said.
This relationship of space was created with a specific intention.
“My hope is that it peaks the curiosity of students passing by from the outside, so much that they visit the museum for another view from the inside,” Forde said.
With works that aren’t as easy on the eyes and meanings that are not always completely obvious, it is difficult to contextualize their place in the world of art. Piccinini’s fits into this category. Blurring the line between art and activism, the piece holds a message that goes beyond what the eye can see.
Speaking to the importance of diversity, Forde notes the piece’s place as an artwork and a call to action.
“First and foremost empathy, compassion for those ‘different’ than us — something we could stand to have a lot more of in the world these days,” she said.
“The Comforter” serves as an example of pushing of boundaries. In a distinctly uncomfortable manner, the work shows viewers the amount of change that has yet to occur surrounding topics that involve the boundaries between the natural and the artificial. Piccinini opens a conversation about the barriers between the genetically modified and the natural, one that is, although uncomfortable and often overlooked, all the more necessary.