All babies are beautiful – even truck babies. In Patricia Piccinini’s work for at least the last five years, vehicles and their physical relationship to the human form have been a gel for linking themes of customisation, identity, family, gene technology, fashion and landscape themes. In Desert rider, mountain, 2000, Piccinini brings together these strains, creating an extended discussion on key scientific and social issues, as if one piece has been the training ground or lab work for the next. The car and its physical manifestations has provided a marvellous connection between the natural and the artificial, need and desire, form and function. Fittingly, Piccinini says that her car is really more like her studio.
The three ‘stars’ of Desert rider are Piccinini’s Truck babies – sculptural works created in 1999 that now also exist in two dimensions. Desert rider forms a lineage with the 3-D plastic and duco skins and the poster-scaled Psycho photographs of 1996 which also feature bizarre, infantile creatures in a digitised landscape. At the time Piccinini noted about Truck babies:
The idea … came to me while on a long road trip in the United States … I began to distinguish between the trucks; I could nominate which family (fleet) they belonged to, I could distinguish their features (customising). It wasn’t long before I asked the question – where are their babies and what do they look like?
Patricia Piccinini is a futuristic world-mother figure, creating new life and new ‘lifescapes’. She embraces the often abject progeny of her making and has likened her practice to that of Dr Frankenstein. In one version of the future, as others have pointed out, human babies can be made to order just by making a judicious cocktail of genes, so why not a baby truck – a vehicle that would at last be the object and generator of human love?
The landscape behind the babies also seems to be the perfect, natural habitat for cars, with no greenery for them to pollute. However, the sleek, sweet colours of the trucks and the digital mountain-scape in which they roam are both inorganic and harmonious, or is it just that this anthropomorphism makes nature gleam artificially? In advertisements – especially for heavy-duty off-road machines – the object for sale is frequently placed in exotic or radically dangerous places to enhance their physical mobility and the potential mobility gained by owning one. Piccinini’s image shows a world not dissimilar to such product promotions, but one that is human-less. If these trucks could self-reproduce then, in this fantasy, Piccinini’s Desert rider would be an ad for them – perhaps marketing truck family holidays, or, in the world of perfect trucks, the image might evoke some type of truck utopia or form of pin-up truck beauty. Indeed, such a proposition isn’t far from the world of consumables Piccinini has already imagined in Psychotourism, 1966 and Psychogeography, 1966, also in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. The suggestion is humorous but laced with anxiety. This time it seems it is scientists rather than the writers of science fiction who are making dystopian claims, with Stephen Hawking predicting a future in which we are slaves to superintelligent machines.
At the same time so much of Piccinini’s practice is a serious exploration of the ways in which science and technology fuse over medico-ethical issues such as enhancing and manipulating human and animal bodies through stem cell research, gene therapy and cloning. The artist also regularly consults with scientists and other industry professionals. In tandem to this is Piccinini’s personal ambivalence to the ability of capitalism to conjure desire out of nothing more than glossy surfaces. What an image Desert rider might make for the future, synthetic mobile agents at peace in the desert of the real.
Kate Rhodes, Assistant Curator of Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2004).