Blood in the Vitrine: Living Donor Tissue in Contemporary Art

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As any art history student knows, there’s much more to art than carved stone and painted canvas. Just open any copy of the Daily Mail to read what ludicrous material tax payers money has been squandered to install in [insert gallery name here] etc. We’ve come to terms with pickled cows, just like we’re fairly unfazed by piles of bricks or elephant shit. Nonetheless, there’s still one collection of media which can cause the skin to crawl and the stomach to turn – human tissue and remains.

Though there are multiple sanctions regarding their use – from those implemented by museums and galleries, independent bodies or governments – the undead body continues to haunt the exhibition space. However, although recent surveys carried out by the DCMS have revealed that the vast majority of the British public (91%) are comfortable and supportive of the continuing display of human remains, this acceptance does not seem to apply when human tissue is incorporated into works of art. While many are comfortable seeing a mummy or a bog body, some of us are left scratching our heads, wondering why artists are allowed to cross a perceived line.

As this is a vast and labyrinthine subject, it is likely I will return to a different aspect of it in the future. For now then, I want to focus on a specific issue that was brought to my attention by an exhibition at LifeSpace in Dundee. Their Material Concerns show of 2015 dealt specifically with the issue of samples from living donors, or human tissue which could be regenerated – nails, hair, teeth, blood etc. No suspended limbs, no floating organs, no clean bones. Though few would think twice about handing over this material to a lab or hospital, its place in the gallery is on uncertain ground.

As a lady who loves getting her creep on, scrolling through book of the dead images, stories of body snatchers and basically anything in a museum you can get a DNA sample from, this sort of controversy has always interested me. It seems to me that, although we’re happy for human bodies to be used in scientific research or medical procedures (whether the donor be dead or alive) using them in art is seen as a transgression because it is just not serious enough (I ask my fellow art-historians to bear with me and not be offended). What I mean by this is that, though we’re happy to accept that art represents a higher level of production than, for example, plastering a wall or making a roast dinner, its gains remain extremely difficult to measure. If research on historical material revolutionises the field, changing our perspective of a past event, or if use of soft tissue in clinical trials leads to a miracle cure which will save millions, there is a tangible contribution to progress – be it academic or in terms of the human race. But, even if an artwork changes the perspective of everyone who views it, this is difficult to gauge and quantify. Put simply, though we all acknowledge the potential of art to illicit change, be it emotionally or in a more activist vein, such change is, ironically, not as visible as when these human tissue is made the preserve of scientists.

There’s also the rather uneasy issue of respect and sanctity, and to be fair, even specimens in museums (being used for apparently more legitimate purposes) fall under criticism in this respect. Are we respecting everyone in our multicultural, global societies when we show such objects? Are we respecting those to whom they once belonged? These obstacles have to be navigated in order to prevent a sensitive display. I think that the reason it is felt that artists are not best-placed to do this comes from our perception of them as an arrogant and narcissistic breed. Until just doing a few google searches to write this, I assumed that the generally acclaimed but also (in my experience) generally disliked Damien Hirst had smeared diamonds over a human skull – to create For The Love Of God – without thought for its origins or the potential ethical issues surrounding it. I’ve just be informed by the great electronic oracle that is in fact a platinum cast. I tried to maintain that he’d still been unethical towards the original skull, but it turns out it was subjected to rigorous testing an carbon dating, which ascertained the sex, age and approximate life-span of the bones – supplying that all important humanising context, endearing audiences and melting artists’ icy hearts, (hopefully) ensuring reverence all round. I insist, however, that this artwork still proves my point about contrasting opinions regarding the scientific and artistic use of human remains. I was determined to have Hirst be a villain, and so I didn’t even bother checking the facts regarding this now seemingly not so troubling piece until I was committing my thoughts to the internet (where people tell you off for your mistakes).

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The teeth are real though – and this is my seamless transition towards my next exemplar work of art. As part of her Wasted projects (all concerning the use of human tissue in art) artist Gina Czarnecki has created the Palaces project, to which the pearly whites of little boys and girls play an integral part. Before I get to the work itself, I’d like to dedicate a paragraph to a few horrible things about teeth: In many senses, teeth represent the violent and the abject; they’re what we bite with, what we consume the remains of other lives (food and such the like) with. Teeth are animal, and they also retain that whole mediaeval assumption of the outside representing the inside – filthy teeth being indicative of a bad lifestyle and, clearly, a nefarious character. Most of us have dreamt of our teeth falling out (I’m told that it absolutely doesn’t mean what you think it means, so don’t start), and it’s horrible. Losing teeth is also intrinsically connected to the never-ending march to the grave, you lose them first when you’re no longer a fresh faced little ween, and again when you’re on your way over the proverbial hill. Of all the features of a skull, the one you can’t possible over look is, of course, those bared, ever-grinning fangs. It’s a bit odd then, that we have come to associate them with fairies.

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The end product of the Palaces project is a lovely, delicate castle, made of crystal resin. The piece has appeared in a number of temporary exhibitions (it’s in Dundee now, and you can see it here), always accompanied by a donation box. Not for money or comments though, but for envelopes containing freshly lost teeth. These are then added to the work, with the idea that it one day will be completely covered –  a physical manifestation of the tooth fairy palaces you may have been told your pilfered teeth were contributing to. By drawing attention to how irrational and fanciful our method of explaining the natural process of tooth loss is, Czarnecki forces the viewer to consider that the aversion to such material itself may be equally so. Can the society which created the tooth fairy always be trusted to be rational when it comes to these sort of things? Perhaps not. Czarnecki also confronts the issue of consent with regard to any use of human tissue. The children whose teeth are used (or their parents) must give consent in order for them to be used. They may also provide a story of their loss, which is displayed alongside the sculpture. The work, then, also acts as a monument to all those who donate their bodies, whether in the name of art or science. (I’m not finished yet, but if you want to send your teeth to the Palace, click here).

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The use of human remains becomes less problematic if the materials the artist uses are their own. Though we hardly have the image of Burke and Hare-esque artists stalking the streets and rummaging in graveyards for their next victim/show-stopping final piece, it’s undeniable that the whole thing becomes a lot easier to deal with if we can be absolutely sure of consent. Nothing is better than the artist volunteering themselves rather than picking on (or off? from?) others. To different ends and with different aims, both Carolee Schneeman and Marc Quinn have literally bled themselves dry in the pursuit of art. Quinn’s Self is displayed at the National Portrait Gallery. Or at least, one of them always is – the blood which makes up the 3D replica of his face deteriorates every few years, and so the artist has to bleed afresh to create an updated version of his ever ageing face. In a more traditional form (it wouldn’t seem out of place amongst the neo-classical busts elsewhere in the collection)the piece is more fascinating than shocking, allowing the viewer to engage with its commentary on mortality. Likewise, as part of one of her artists books, Schneeman made a small drawing using her own blood (featured image, see above). Assuming the shape of a heart or pair of lungs the work, like Quinn’s, makes clear reference to the source of its materials (a good student always footnotes). Most importantly, like Palaces, the two suggest the nobility and utility of the sacrifice of donation, to whatever end.

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In the face of such different and innovative uses of human remains in the field of contemporary art, it’s hard to maintain the idea that their use here, rather than in the lab, is something of a waste. Maintaining that uneasiness with regards to ethics also become a bit of struggle – where these works are concerned at least, much seems to have been satisfied. Consent (especially if the artist themselves makes the contribution), respect and a strong engagement with context seem to go part way to redeeming these works, undermining our initial squeamishness. The nature of the parts used (for the most part, the more acceptable pieces use materials that the donor could, literally, live without) also plays an important role. While it is true that some cultures may still find these works offensive due to their material, regardless of anything else, such pieces are usually preceded by clear content warnings. If they’re not, their scandalous profiles make sure word gets out, and anyone who doesn’t want to see doesn’t have to.

And so, for me, happily, eerily, spookily and controversially, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to be scared of letting a few extra bodies into the gallery. Or at least, a few pieces, we can cope with. The full package is a completely different beast…

Originally published as part of student magazine project HASTA, 4/4/2015. Current form revised and edited.

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