Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Grimm design? A fairy palace made of baby teeth

Some people think it’s creepy at first," says artist Gina Czarnecki, standing next to a large translucent sculpture - a cross between a fairy castle and a cave full of stalactites - which is studded at intervals with little human teeth. This is one of her latest works, WASTED: Palaces, on display in a new exhibition of Czarnecki’s work at Liverpool’s Bluecoat exhibition space, which commissioned the piece.
Despite their initial revulsion, the attention of the mainstream media has convinced members of the public to get on board with the project, Czarnecki says. Back in April, CultureLab learned of her plans to ask children and parents to donate milk teeth to her, rather than the tooth fairy. Over the last few months she has collected hundreds and as more and more people donate, the palace will turn from shiny glass-like resin into a coral of tooth enamel.
Czarnecki is interested in what happens to our tissue once it leaves our bodies - who does it belong to, what information does it betray about us, and what scope does it have medically? She’s also interested in the use of such body parts in art, and the stark contrast between the ethical regulations concerning the use of tissue for scientific research and its use in artwork. Alongside the toothy palace, WASTED also includes an arm chair with a cushion made of human fat extracted during liposuction, and a mobile made of plaster casts of diseased bone.
Czarnecki was surprised to discover that she and Imperial College stem cell scientist Sarah Rankin, with whom she collaborated on the project, were not required to seek approval from an ethics committee or the Human Tissue Authority to display the works, because the tissue was obtained from living people and there was no research element involved. All they needed was permission from those sending in their teeth.
Compared with something like umbilical cord donation for medical purposes, which is surrounded by beaurocratic red tape despite the massive life-saving potential, collecting and displaying tissue for an exhibition was child’s play, says Czarnecki. She hopes that her work will get people thinking about the ethical dilemmas surrounding tissue donation, especially that which is rich in stem cells such as teeth, because she says the future of the National Health Service depends on such public awareness.
Czarnecki is also interested in the contradictions within peoples attitudes to human and animal tissues. Some are prepared to eat junk food made with revolting pieces of animal meat, and are prepared to inject fat into their lips for aesthetic reasons, but are revulsed by the suggestion of sitting on a cushion made of human fat.
One of the most successful works in the exhibition is an interactive video titled Contagion. Visitors enter a dark room to come face with a circular target at the centre of a massive screen.  As they move around the room, smoke-like projections appear on the screen, tracking visitors’ movements and spreading out towards other people. At the same time, an audio track and subtle background images convey modern war scenes.
The work builds a connection between the spread of infections and the spread of information. In particular, during an outbreak such as bird flu, how does the role of the media affect the way we behave, and the spread of information? During wartime (the sounds and images in this room are of US soldiers tracking and killing three Iraqis), how does mediation of the facts spread and mutate the truth?
"It’s about what we have been told is true. Where does the manipulation of media begin and end?" says Czarnecki. "The fear of pandemic is far more lethal than the pandemic itself," she adds, quoting Stephen Corbett, professor of public heath at the University of Sydney, Australia, who spoke at a related event last Sunday.
Czarnecki’s works are thought-provoking, if a little unnerving. I had expected Palaces to be a striking constuction seemingly built out of children’s teeth, so I was surprised to find that the palace’s enchanting frame, with just 600 teeth in place, is currently pretty bare, with patches of teeth growing out like unwanted calluses.  But, if Palaces wasn’t quite the star of the show I thought it would be, it still has time to get there.
The sculpture still has years of growth ahead of it as it tours the country, and as the donations accumulate Czarnecki plans to position the teeth in the natural crevices of the sculpture, preserving its organic form and giving it the feeling of a natural growth. It’s easy to imagine that as it grows in this manner, the fairy-tale sculpture will transform from a creepy scene to something altogether more magical.
The exhibition is free, and runs at the Bluecoat until 19th Feb 2012. Palaces will tour to the Science Museum, Imperial College and the Centre of the Cell, London in 2012, and the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry in 2013. And, if you can bear to bypass the tooth fairy, you can donate your own baby teeth to the project.

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