Seventeen years ago, whilst on a group expedition from the small town of Rurrenabaque in Bolivia, I had several close encounters with piranhas on the Beni River. It started simply enough, fishing for them off the sides of a motorised canoe and hoping to God I didn’t fall out (and more importantly that I didn’t have any nicks or scratches on me).
That night the piranhas became dinner, the iconic freshwater predator reduced to flakes of dense fleshy protein consumed alongside plates of rough-cut chips served up in cloying heat that stuck to the skin like a layer of Vaseline. We all took something of a perverse pleasure in eating them, feeling they might have done the same to us given half the chance.
The next day out on the river it got more interesting. According to our local guide, if we spun the canoes in the water the sound of the motors would attract pink river dolphins who would ward off the piranhas and make it safe for us to swim. The dolphins arrived and we all waded into the opaque coffee-coloured water, unaware of whether the trick had really worked.
The Retro Baby Piranha Collection
My dinner date with the piranhas (whether you think of it from their perspective or mine) has proved a good anecdote over the years but it wasn’t until confronting a shoal of their carbon fibre counterparts – part of the new Retro Baby Piranha Collection from former Formula One chief mechanic turned artist Alastair Gibson – that the memories came back in such sharp relief.
As gallery manager for ArtÓ I had the opportunity to see Gibson’s piranhas in production in the Carbon Art 45 studio, including the precision care taken in applying the custom designed vinyl transfers. Each sculpture in the collection features the livery from a car in a seminal Formula One race such as James Hunt’s triumph in the 1976 World Championship in the Marlboro McLaren M23.
Now viewing the finished piranhas back at ArtÓ, complete with a desk mounting that features a gear from a modern Formula One Grand Prix car, you see how accurately the sculptures capture the essence of the fish. The jutting jaw, fierce eyes and muscular feel. Not to mention the teeth. All very hench, were it not for the undeniable sexiness of the retro liveries.
I find it so interesting how life works in cycles. After such a formative (and literally immersive) experience with piranhas in South America to be reconnected with them through Gibson’s compelling artworks leads me to believe they must in some way be my spirit animal (though what this says about me I’m not entirely sure). Am I, in fact, Piranha Girl?
And there is further serendipity at play. The Retro Baby Piranha Collection is a smaller version of Gibson’s Racing Piranha 2 sculpture, commissioned by the Brazilian racing driver Rubens Barrichello in 2007, just two years after I was cruising up the Amazon basin. An example of how two wholly separate narratives can flow concurrently before colliding together at a later date.
Oh and I still have the t-shirt.