An image kept appearing in arts zines that was benign but somehow skewed — not quite this and not quite that. It was big but evidently benign since it had its head on an unalarmed child’s lap. Maybe a sort of merman. Aren't those flippers for feet? Maybe a walrus anomaly.
Then there was this obscene object:
Two HAIRY anuses on this poor blob and evidently blood pouring out of one! Egads! Even if it's ketchup that's just about as bad. What kind of disease would make a person leak ketchup? What kind of person would create this little horror? Is it symbolic? Of what? I started tracing back to find clues. More. Disturbing. But somehow seductive.
A hand? A baby? Both?
Then this little baby showed up on Google Images when I was looking for something else. I thought maybe it was a puppet. Long hair, red, is not usual on human babies, but red hair is a mutation that "stuck," so why wouldn't they be prone to more mistakes of gestation?
Thalidomide babies? I’d been reading in “Boyology” about chimeras like werewolves, vampires, mermaids, and so on. I’d seen the movie about the half-alien/half-cat baby that no one could bear to destroy and I’d been talking about gestational anomalies that docs tried to save, though they would be lifelong freaks if they did. The subject was not about realistic physical freaks, but about psychological mergings, ways to express emotional distortions.
But even totally accurate imitations of humans, presented as art work, in the way only modern plastics would allow, had some kind of aura they projected. I remember the first dolls that had convincingly real-seeming skin, and that the makers had abandoned sweet little puppet faces in favor of being frozen while crying. One felt they were real and had an urge to respond to their puckered faces, so one started patting their backs and soothing "there-there."
A few artists experimented with this intersection of instinct and uncanniness. Sometimes the replicas were adults or even life-sized sex toys, but the impulse to make dolls continued to be fulfilled.
This little beast above was created by an artist out of the same kind of materials and techniques used on the ultra-realistic doll-babies that cost a fortune. But alongside the evoked impulse to cuddle and rock this little creature was a troubling impulse to smother it with a pillow. Like some ancient tribe afraid of strange things.
Somehow sex and birth were involved, maybe because of nudity. There is an essential strangeness about inserting part of one's body into someone else, and it's even stranger for one person to emerge from the belly of another person.
I've written before about the disturbing art work of artists who replicate people, often messing with scale, so that a head might be huge. But then these apparently small sculptures are more strange. Like Dark Crystal. Pan’s Labyrinth. The picture books about trolls and elves had the same vibe but imagined creatures are far more shocking when they seem to be actual flesh. Less like fantasy and more like sci-fi. Science gives us many unbelievable but quite actual creatures these days.
Then I found this one:
I fancied I'd actually glimpsed it perched on one of my teetering piles of books. Rocking a bit on its tiny buttocks. I reach out a hand. It turns around . . .
An elephant child. Or piglet. Quite worried, it seemed. But I'll put the cats outside. This is far beyond Thumbelina or Peter Pan or Tinker Bell. A baby from Star Wars.
These figures are the work of Patricia Piccinini, whom I read is a major artist in Australia, the continent where evolution proceeded in quite a different way and where the aboriginals and animals are strange, the landscape is eerie, and one feels the presence of the nearby Unseen.
"Nearly Beloved" is by Helen McDonald who is not the familiar and lovable English woman who wrote about her hawk, though I have a feeling that the two Helens would get along very well. She herself is not the artist, Patricia Piccinini. This Helen McDonald (no "a" in the Mc) wrote the first major publication on Patricia Piccinini. This book reproduces and discusses all Piccinini's major works. It costs $75, which is about the same as Bob Scriver's biggest book, "The Blackfeet, Artists of the Northern Plains." (I know because my copy came from a bookshop in Australia via the Internet.) Both these little creatures and pre-contact Native Americans have the kind of Otherness that makes us very very curious, but feeling a little endangered.
I’d been reading in “Boyology” about chimeras, which is a medical term and happens, though usually between two people -- maybe unfinished twins. I’d seen the movie about the half-alien/half-cat baby that no one could bear to destroy until it was too late, and I’d been talking about gestational anomalies that docs tried to save, though they would be lifelong freaks if they did. Then there are the plastic surgery disasters. This little beast suggested that if it were created by an artist, it was by using the same kind of materials and techniques used on the ultra-realistic doll-babies that cost a fortune. Or the art work of artists who replicate people. But these sculptures are more strange. Here are two quick samples, both rather elfish.
I'd been vaguely aware of "art dolls," some of which fit into this context. They are in newsstand magazines. The creators often use Fimo to create one-of-a-kind creatures. David Powell, son of Bob's close friend Ace Powell, makes mannequin Indians this way and dresses them authentically in mixed media clothes and artifacts. One-fifth life-sized, he says they sell better than paintings.
We know immigrants and foreign lands. We know people are different on the outside but wonder about the insides -- are other people really like us? Aren't they dangerous? We know we should be kind and understanding about human Otherness: gays, autistics, the blind and so on. But they are somehow threatening. Maybe it's the fear of being oddballs ourselves. What if your own child turned out to be "queer" in some way, and yet so beautiful, so fragile, so otherworldly. One's heart breaks even thinking about it.
And then there is the horror of reality. Now you're ready to watch this performance.