Grote vissen eten de kleine, penteking van Pieter Bruegel de Oude / Albertina museum, Wenen

"I wonder if Breugel’s drawing ‘Big Fish Eat Little Fish’ is a work of science fiction? It asks the question central to the genre: where does the human begin or end - and can we shift the balance of power?" — Francis Upritchard

Sci-fi is often treated as less important than so-called literary fiction. I read a lot of both, but while making this show, sci-fi was my focus and I’d like to recommend some books to you. I was shocked that none of the books below are available on the huge London-wide digital library I’m a member of, although all can be purchased online as e-books.

Breugel’s crazy imagination has fascinated me since I pored over our table place-mats of his paintings as a child. When you read sci-fi you will come across some crazy stories. Be gentle and don’t feel frustration because something isn’t seemingly plausible. Perhaps it’s easier with visual work: the fish is open and spewing its fantasy guts — it’s caught you the moment you have glanced at it. Reading is slower, but no less rewarding.

Of all the novels I read while making this show, my favourites are the Seed to Harvest (or Patternist) series by Octavia Butler. Super-nuanced books dealing with difference and oppression, they span many lifetimes and a lot of space. Some characters develop telepathic mind control, and a whole branch of beings have been infected with a micro-organism that allows them to hear, smell and intuit people’s intentions better. They come to prefer a simpler uncooked diet and have the urge to transmit the disease to other humans, who bear offspring who share these changes, and walk around on all fours. Thus their hands change to more clumsy calloused appendages. 

This narrative I thought about directly in relation to the Parthenon Metope carvings of centaurs fighting the Lapith people — a fight which I think is really about culture and mind fighting the body and impulse. The humans are depicted as elegant, they use spears and shields to fight. The brutish centaurs use their strong hands and hurl looted pottery. For this show I have sculpted, in wild rubber, beings who were very quickly made and are sinewy and tactile — like creatures found desiccated under the house years after they were lost in the maze. 

The books in N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series are so complex that I’m not sure how to describe how they affected my work. They created a haze or aura around me like in a computer game where our accoutrements bob around behind us as we run and fight (in this case a very large crystal). Earth’s awesome power is always apparent, and coming from Christchurch, quite recently knocked about by large earthquakes, I know in my bones this is true. This is why I’m trying to source increasingly large rocks for my sculptures.

Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch series set in the Ancillary Universe describes a world with a single gender and a central character who is an Artificial Intelligence. Many of the moving human bodies are under the direct neural control of a mothership, so sex is irrelevant. I always refer to my figurative works as ‘it’ or ‘the sculpture’. To me they are not bodies containing souls, but shells with the trappings (or wrappings!) of life. 

Sci-fi is often complicated, it spans great lengths of time and it makes up a new world, which is something I think I’m attempting in my sculpture too. You can visit the show virtually, which feels a bit like being in a computer game, although nothing really happens. I hope you find the scenery interesting. It would be so cool if you could leapfrog a sculpture and grab a floating crystal, but the art world doesn’t have the sense of humour of the sci-fi realm.

Francis Upritchard - Big Fish Eat Little Fish

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