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image icon 'Laboratory procedures', 2002

'Laboratory procedures', 2002
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is a large format colour photograph made in 2002 by Patricia Piccinini (1965-) as part of the series 'Science story'. Measuring 100 cm x 200 cm, the image shows a man and a woman in what appears to be the interior of a hospital laboratory - there is a medical examination table with large overhead lights, breathing apparatus, various plastic containers and an X-ray sheet fixed to a light box in the far corner. Both the man and woman are wearing white laboratory coats. The woman (who has a stethoscope around her neck) is standing with her hands clasped in front and looking towards the man with an anxious expression on her face. The man is looking down at the creature he holds in his arms. This creature is about the same colour, skin texture and size of a young pig and has a slug-like form with stubby legs, a fat stumpy tail at one end and a broad shovel nose at the other.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is a work by Patricia Piccinini - Piccinini emigrated from the west African country of Sierra Leone to Australia in 1972; she studied at the Victorian College of the Arts from 1989 to 1991, and since the early 1990s has investigated the frontiers of science and technology through her sculptural, video and photographic works; her particular focus in these investigations is on the potential of current and emerging biotechnologies to modify the human form; in 2003, Piccinini represented Australia at the International Exposition of Art of Venice, where she exhibited five large compositions entitled 'We are family'; this work was part of an extended project that investigated, through the language of art, the risks associated with scientific developments and society's dreams of a life free of sicknesses and death
  • features SO2, a creature (shown in the man's arms) named in reference to SO1 ('Synthetic Organism 1'), the world's first laboratory-bred microorganism - SO2 is also known as the Siren Mole, which comes from its 'artist-invented' scientific name, 'Exellocephala Parthenopa'; the first of these words means 'extremely-strange head' and the second is a reference to the mythical siren Parthenopa (also Parthenope, from a Greek word meaning 'maiden face'); given this context, the hybrid name 'Siren Mole' seems highly incongruous
  • is one of a series of photographic works made by Piccinini in 2001-02 related to the artist's ongoing interest in artificial life forms and stem-cell and cloning technologies - this series, titled 'Science story', was sited in a laboratory at the Melbourne Zoo with actors playing the parts of committed scientists; SO2 has also appeared as a passenger in the front seat of a Holden car, playing with skate-boarding children, and in three-dimensional form in the wombat enclosure at the Melbourne Zoo; the three-dimensional Siren Mole, sited in a glass-walled zoo-like enclosure, and 'Science story' photographs were also included in the 2002 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, 'Converge: where art and science meet'
  • is an outcome of extensive research and consultation between the artist and scientists and other industry professionals - SO2 was designed on a computer and then modelled in three dimensions with assistance from animatronics and prosthetics experts
  • uses the realism of photography and sculpture to create a powerful illusion of probabilities - Piccinini has said of the work, 'The truth is that it is becoming very easy to believe in Siren Moles. It is increasingly difficult to disbelieve anything that we see or hear about.'
  • is a narrative image - the action of the woman looking with an anxious expression at the man smiling down on the creature suggests that this moment is part of an unfolding story, as if a freeze-frame from a film; in many respects the image borrows from B-grade horror movies involving white-coated scientists, laboratory interiors and mutant creatures
  • references 'mad-scientist-creates-monster' film and writing genres - there are close connections between this body of work and Mary Shelley's (1797-1851) 'Frankenstein: The modern Prometheus' (first published 1818); the principal difference is that in Piccinini's images the 'monster' looks vulnerable and the scientists are providing a protective environment rather than running in fear, in other words, they are taking responsibility for their creation
  • raises questions about the purpose and consequences of creating new life forms - Piccinini has indicated that because the creature is an animal rather than a human being it allows people to debate genetic issues without the heightened emotions associated with the idea of human cloning; the Siren Mole allows Piccinini to ask questions such as 'Why would you create new life?' and 'Where would it belong?'