Monday, 23 September 2013

Wasted by Gina Czarnecki at RAMM, Exeter (ends September 29)

As mentioned in a previous post, during the summer I have been acting as an art volunteer at RAMM in Exeter on several days during the week. This has involved engaging with visitors about the temporary art exhibitions. One of these, Wasted, closes on 29 September. This is your last chance to visit this fascinating exhibition.

Gina Czarnecki and Professor Sara Rankin
The exhibition has been produced by Gina Czarnecki in collaboration with Professor Sara Rankin of Imperial College, London. To quote the RAMM's own blurb, it "explores the life-giving potential of 'discarded'  body parts and their relationship to myth, history, cutting edge stem cell research and notions of what constitutes informed consent."

In fact the exhibition is a collection of  Gina's work from recent years which is concerned with these issues. The artist is passionate about her work and when she is there to talk about them, the pieces really come to life. However, without Gina's commentary, and with little commentary in the gallery, both the focus and the context that makes the works interesting are easily lost. I have included several links below that help to put some flesh onto the bones of the exhibition.

The Palace and the Diagram for a Summerhouse behind

The first thing that you see when you enter the gallery is the Tooth Palace. This is a large scale illuminated stalagmite-like resin construction to which donated children's milk teeth are cemented. The palace itself was made by MDM, who make props for museums, artwork, theatre etc. Children are encouraged to touch the exhibit and part of its aim is to publicise the possibilities of using stem cells to create body spare parts. However, milk teeth contain few stem cells and these are not really worth harvesting for this purpose. Most stem cells are harvested from umbilical cord blood and this is only done at centres in the UK which are equipped to carry out the work to required standards - which tends to raise questions about some of the work's stated aims ...

Nevertheless, the Palace works well enough as a work on its own terms. Each of the stalagmites is modeled differently: One is based upon animal sinews, another on Cologne Cathedral and the tallest upon a Disney palace - reflecting another of the artist's concerns - the Disneyfication of our world and our history (follow Palace link for more details). Gina's original sketches are also on show, as are letters from children about their experiences losing their milk teeth. Unfortunately the latter is the limit of the exploration of milk teeth myths which is promised in the exhibition blurb.

Diagram for a summerhouse (detail)

Behind the Palace is a wall of dental impressions entitled Diagram for a Summerhouse. The dental impressions are typical of thousands routinely taken by dentists which previously would have gone into landfill after use, but which now cannot because of the methane emissions that they produce. Gina had planned to build a Victorian style folly using these impressions in place of the more typical seashells but, apparently, her husband objected. As a work, they are quite impressive. Their arrangement - white on black - resembles the rows of military graves in Flanders and elsewhere that war dead are buried. The impressions themselves are fascinating - It is surprising that in the 21st century people have such poor teeth.

Tony Garner

The next group of pieces are centred upon the hip bone replacement of Tony Garner. Following problems in getting permissions to use human tissue in her art, Gina turned to a living donor where the same constraints do not apply. An interview with Tony Garner is shown where Gina explains what she plans to do with his replaced femur head and he signs to show his consent. Alongside this the removed femur head is on display. The art works consist of a beachball-sized globe to which has been added multiple castings in plaster of the femur head. A further photograph shows the beauty of frozen femur heads.

At the far end of the gallery are the Fat Chairs. These are two chairs which have been reupholstered in an art deco style and the seat cushion is filled with fat. The fat chairs can be referenced back to the Fat Chairs work by Joseph Beuys. Gina's father was incarcerated in a nazi concentration camp in Poland during the war and this is why the rendering of human fat is a subject in which she has a particular interest (the nazis produced soap from human fat) and why the chairs are in the deco style.  She sought to obtain human fat for the chairs but found that surgeons would not release human fat (obtained by liposuction, for example) for fear that they would put at risk their licences to practice medicine.

Typically, she does not make it explicit in the exhibition that the fat is not human and it is interesting that some people are upset by knowing that the chairs contain fat (regardless of whether it is human or animal) while others have a different reaction depending upon what they think is being used - especially vegans. At the start of the exhibition visitors were allowed to sit in the chairs and to experience the comforting feeling that the seats provide as the fat warms to body temperature, but subsequently this was stopped because of concerns that they might be damaged.

The video Pixie Dust "explores the notion of limb regeneration for humans within the contexts of science, sport, disability and super-ability. The title Pixie Dust comes from the substance taken from the pigs gut matrix that is applied to wounds to prevent scarrification and therefore allow continual growth of the tissue." However, the video is stitched together from material found on the internet and its message is largely fictional. Again, Gina is commenting upon the disneyfication of scientific research and its interpretation and reporting. But the mixture of fact and fiction is confusing for the viewer and tends to detract from the primary message that Gina is apparently selling ie that permissions for the use of human tissue in art or in research should not be so prescriptive that they restrict either activity unnecessarily.

Tony Garner's removed femur head

The final elements of the exhibition are two fold: A large banner recording ethical discussions which were held at the Bluecoat Gallery when the exhibition showed there, and an opportunity for visitors to give their own views on whether they would donate their tissue for Art. The latter makes interesting reading and does pull together the disparate elements of the exhibition, although the prevailing view is somewhat unsurprising - ie people are keen to donate for science but indifferent about art.

Overall this is an interesting and thought-provoking exhibition, although it does have flaws: It is a collection of previously shown separate pieces and that means that it does not have a really clear focus; it blurs fact and reality (ok for art but undermining if you are pressing a particular viewpoint); and it mixes the arguments for making consent easier for the use of body parts in art and in medicine.

A frozen femur head - photo by Rod Dillon

The exhibition also lacks a decent commentary. If you want to get the most from it, then you need to read around the exhibition or have a guided tour. RAMM is the last venue where Wasted  is being shown. However, Gena Czarnecki is negotiating with places where the Palaces sculpture may be put on permanent show - and it is planned to continue to accept milk teeth for adding to the sculpture for the next year or so.

A book is available that includes a number of works from Gina Czarnecki's varied art career: Humancraft: Contaminating Science With Art. You have until the 29th September to view Wasted at RAMM.

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