We always hear about how we live in a ‘throw away’ society; well this also applies to our bodies; after death in western countries most of us are placed in a variously ornate chipboard coffin and then blasted to a cinder. Things are changing, there are now a growing number of options for eco burials in woodlands etc with biodegradable coffins. What we don’t tend to think about is the increasing amount of discarded body parts being produced as a result of various surgical procedures, childbirth produces placenta, surgical operations replacing worn out parts include hearts, kidneys and joints. Cosmetic surgery is on the increase; apparently a record rise in ‘man boob’ operations up by nearly a third in the UK. All that adipose tissue from hips and tummies is duly thrown away.
It’s now been a few weeks since the opening of Gina Czarnecki’s retrospective at the Bluecoat in Liverpool. The show comprises a number of Gina’s works focussing on biomedical topics over the past 10 years. The most recent work is a series of sculptures collectively called ‘Wasted’. There has been a fair amount of coverage [links below] about ‘toothpalace’ sculpture made from kids donated milkteeth and the ideas behind using stem cells in biomedicine. Here I am writing about a related project that I was involved in called ‘Trophies of Empire’.
The idea was to assemble a sculpture out of donated hip bones (femur heads) obtained from consenting, living patients undergoing so-called hip replacement surgery in a hospital in London. Patients may be undergoing partial or total hip replacement ie total hip arthroplasty. The femur head is the ball that fits in the socket; about the size of a golf ball. If you think about it, the human skeletal system is a mind boggling design:- built to withstand 80 years plus of wear and tear, generally self repairs and grows in size from babe in womb to full adult. Now if we had a car with a chassis that could last that long, self repair and expand from dinky toy dimensions to the full model then one might properly term that as ‘awesome’.
I started taking delivery of these femur heads a few months ago; it was agreed that I would sterilise the donated heads before passing them on to Gina for creating the sculpture. On the whole, I was an interested observer, as I followed the whole process of arranging to contact hospitals, designing and creating the consent forms (well done Sam, the man, Meech), finding out about permission to obtain the bones, health and safety risk assessment etc etc and etc took a number of years (yeah years!) before the final first delivery. This process sort of paralleled the amount of effort that goes into some of my science research projects; years of work ending up with a couple of publications in what you might regard as ‘obscure’, occasionally not so obscure, refereed science journals.
One of the problems we envisaged with donated bones was how to remove the human meaty bits still attached to the bone without damaging the bones integrity and inherent beauty of form. We decided that it would be best to use flesh eating beetles to clean the bones. So after a bit of research we asked the Natural History Museum London if they could process the bones for us with their Dermestid beetle colony. There was a protracted series of emails (I think technical term is a flurry of emails) that seemed to go in ever increasing circles about whether we had ‘permission’ and clearance regarding the Human Tissue Act.
The problem is that human tissue donated by living donors for art projects does not come within the Human Tissue Act (hence Wasted Debates). In the end I decided to get my own colony of dermestid beetle (Dermestes lardarius) so that I could process the bones ‘in house’..well perhaps ‘in lab’. I did a few experiments with biological detergents as well (these are based on bioenzymes originally derived from bacteria) and after comparisons with different brands I indeed found that Ariel Actilift was best for giving me lovely clean pork spare ribs. In the event the bones arrived fairly clean and there was no need to use the beetle colony or the biodetergent Ariel. An example of the femur heads still frozen after transit is given below. Anyway the upshot of that is I now have a colony of the little beetle beauties currently munching their way through a bag of cat food. As a result of working on this project I am thinking of investigating some of the interesting dermestid bioenzymes that they use for digesting flesh; potential enzymes for biological clothes detergent (Ha! an example of art project influencing path of science?).
For me this art project was reflection of the processes in my own science research work; lot of dead ends, circles, processes, and re-starts. The resulting sculpture has been discussed by Gina in her blog and book ‘Humancraft’; some, no doubt, nuanced many layered concepts relating to Liverpool, the British Empire, preservation and permissions about our bodies. But when I see this sculpture I see the wheel and femur heads; to me it’s a mobility mobile, a reflection of the donors who are increasingly in pain (evidence the wear marks on the femur head) waiting, incapacitated, desiring to stay mobile and independent with their dignity intact. The choice of the wheelchair or literally running free. Elderly citizens [that will be you one day if you are lucky]; is the choice simply preservation or an attempt to give a quality life for as long as possible? This brings us back to the increasing choices that we will face about how we view our bodies and the extent to which we can intervene/modify and upgrade.