Going Through the Motions: Speculations on Birth in Patricia Piccinini’s The Awakening

A fleshy, hyperrealistic folding of skin, pore, freckle, wrinkle—this image evokes both movement and closeness, intimacy, invasion.
Patricia Piccinini, The Awakening, 2020. Film still. Courtesy of Hosfelt Gallery.

The birthing video is a peculiar genre of film that grosses out and engrosses by turn. From a teacher wheeling in a CRT monitor into junior high health class, to an aunt pulling out a grainy and gory home video, to Khloe Kardashian’s glitzy televised birth scene, encountering a birthing video can be touching, grotesque, informative, nostalgic, and all of the above. 

In the realm of birth media, there is often a panoply of human elements that lend narrative and sensation to the scene. Medical concerns are probed, hands are squeezed, and family members anticipate the emergence of a small new member into the fold. (“We can’t wait to meet you!”) But what if these auxiliary elements were removed—not only the hospital paraphernalia and extended family, but the essential elements of mother, baby, and presumption of a new human life as well? What would be left?

Patricia Piccinini’s The Awakening (2021) strips away the familiar accoutrement, leaving only a raw and dizzying process of birth. The digital animation, on view at San Francisco’s Hosfelt Gallery from May 1 to June 12, 2021, teases an upcoming immersive exhibition of Piccinini’s work with a nine-minute articulation of birth that left me slightly nauseous and hopelessly engaged, loop after loop. The video depicts vaguely anthropomorphic flesh contorting into contractions, but this birthing tract is not a recognizable vagina, and no formal baby ever arrives. All that remains is a process that, through rejecting an anthropocentric birth narrative, draws the viewer into a heady experience of labor.

First, a nude figure sits on a white table and leans on its hand—then the head isn't a head, but rather two hairy, fleshy blobs, neither attached nor detached, which lean in for a kiss.
Patricia Piccinini, The Awakening, 2020. Installation view. Courtesy of Hosfelt Gallery.

Donna Haraway’s battle cry “MAKE KIN NOT BABIES!” boomed in my head as I confronted the fleshy, pulsating central figure of The Awakening. As a scholar and critic of anthropocentrism, Haraway has described Piccinini as a fellow investigator of “technoculture” and “speculative fabulations” who similarly explores possibilities of decentering humanity and making way for critters to thrive. Piccinini achieves this through engineering vulnerable, fantastical, and hyper realistic creatures that play on the human mind’s ability to generate recognition and empathy. They also remind us, in an age of CRISPR technology and GMOs, that biological engineering is already present and real outside of the gallery walls. In The Awakening, Piccinini’s animation choreographs almost-human flesh into a process that is recognizably a birth, but ambiguously stretches into so much more.

“Kin making is making persons, not necessarily as individuals or as humans,” Haraway writes.

Indeed, I could not parse out anything exclusively human in The Awakening (though the speckled, rosy flesh did feel familiar). The looping, faceless scene was not conducive to any sense of individuality; yet I felt strangely kin to the process I was witnessing. Hypnotized by the anonymous heaving and twitching, I was reminded of all the ways we expel substances from our bodies—the passage of excrement, sloughing of dead skin, oily secretions that bubble up and burst, tumors, babies, moles, zits, entities that protrude out from within. Sometime around the video’s second loop, my thoughts went somewhere more metaphysical. I thought of the productive processes of the mind and heart, about ideas that are worked over in the brain until made manifest in the world, and on impulses that brew below the surface before sublimating. Birth can come in so many forms.

An image is projected onto a far wall, before which are arranged 6 wooden stools in a darkly lit, space, interrupted off-center by a grey pillar.
Patricia Piccinini, The Awakening, 2020. Installation view. Courtesy of Hosfelt Gallery.

When an object does emerge from an orifice in The Awakening, it slips away, incidental, and the video loops again. This deprioritization of a product draws more power towards the process, keeping viewers, as Haraway would put it, “with the trouble”—radically present in pain and joy. It subverts the expectation that a baby is the end goal of a birth, challenging us to further interrogate what it means to conceive, develop, and deliver, leaving space to connect the process to other affairs of the universe, and inviting our imaginations to roam.

Quarantine can feel like a troubled gestation. Confined to the wombs of our homes and webs of dubious information, many of us have struggled with conflicting desires of wanting out, wanting safety, wanting liberty, wanting protection. As The Awakening played in late spring of 2021, San Francisco was in a state of rebirth, practically crowning, hinting an end to the trouble of the past year. I found my own COVID anxieties slipping away as I approached the gallery, eager for the novelty of an in-person, indoor art event. Despite the lure of relaxing tension, Piccinini’s video encouraged me to confront the discomfort, loop after loop. Trouble may work itself out, but in the meantime, we must learn to stay with it.

Patricia Piccinini: The Awakening
Hosfelt Gallery, San Francisco, CA
May 1 – June 12, 2021


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