Gina Czarnecki is the first artist to explore the medical ethics of exhibiting human bone, tissue, fat and milk teeth from living, consenting donors - as art. She talks to Catherine Vonledebur about her Midland exhibition, inspired by her father, who survived a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
"YOU’RE weird, you collect fat?”
This is what sculptor Gina Czarnecki’s 10-year-old daughter Lola said, when she discovered her mother was filling re-upholstered Art Deco chairs with human fat – extracted by liposuction.
Wasted, the artist’s new exhibition at The Herbert, Coventry, includes inter-related sculptures made from children’s milk teeth, discarded human bones, dental casts and human fat.
The exhibition looks at the life-giving potential of discarded body parts, stem cell research, taboos and what constitutes informed consent.
“We are enthralled and repulsed by human tissue, living and dead. The presence in artworks of human matter from living patients is physiologically and psychologically intense,” the 47-year-old explains.
“The Wasted works has become a journey into the grey areas of UK ethics and the process of obtaining informed consent for the use of tissue.
“There is an abundance of human material that, with donor consent, could be used for research, or other purposes, but it is currently ‘wasted’. Why?”
One of her living, consenting donors is Liverpool artist Tony Garner, who had a hip replacement last Monday. He has given consent for his hip ball and socket to be donated to Gina.
She said: “I am going to pick it up next week. I have filmed Tony giving his consent in a video to show the hospital. I am going to set the hip socket in a ball of resin and display it the exhibition at The Herbert. Lancaster University is cleaning the bone for me.
“Tony is coming to open the official launch of Wasted in Coventry – when he is well enough.
“He is a painter. He paints industrial landscapes. We met at the arts space, Metal, during Liverpool Biennial. When he heard what I was doing he said: ‘you can have my hip bone’.”
When she came up with the idea for Wasted, scientists had just discovered discarded body parts, such as bones from joint replacements, umbilical cords, milk teeth and fat from liposuction were a rich source of stem cells. Gina collaborated with stem cell biologist, Professor Sara Rankin at Imperial College, London.
British artist Gina, who moved to Liverpool from Australia six years ago, says: “The Stem Cell Bank in the UK was 10 years behind the rest of Europe when we started.
“Sara has mixed race children and knew they were not represented – as 90 per cent of donations were Caucasian. There has since been a big attempt to get a bigger mix and donations from different communities.”
The scientist and artist realised that they had much in common – they were both from similar working class backgrounds, the same age with children of a similar age, who had recently lost milk teeth for the first time.
Palaces, is the centrepiece of the exhibition – a clear crystal resin cast like an icy mountain range and caves. Look closely you will see lots of tiny milk teeth.
Children from across the world have helped to make the sculpture by donating their milk teeth.
Gina who has two daughters, Lola, aged 10, and Saskia, aged 12 says: “When she was seven-years-old my eldest daughter came home and said: ‘Tell me the truth – is the tooth fairy real?’ As a parent you don’t know how to answer that. That’s what inspired it.
“The transition between our understandings of what’s ‘magical’ and what’s true starts abruptly when we lose our milk teeth.
“Nothing this complex has ever been made in crystal resin. So it was a difficult process to make.
“The original idea was to collect 12,000 teeth and for them to be spilling over like barnacles or coral formations. So far we have collected around 1,200.
“Sara and I had a competition to see who could get the most milk teeth between Liverpool and London, Coventry is coming up as a close third.
“Children send us handwritten stories and pictures about how they lost their teeth. One little girl wrote: ‘I told my granddad my tooth was loose. He said ‘which one?’ and pulled it out’.
“We’ve had some beautiful drawings and we will put them up on the website. Today we had teeth sent from children in Greece and Canada.
“When it is lit up Palaces looks amazing. It looks like ice and is designed to be touched. My husband is totally paranoid about teeth – he cannot touch them.”
The shape of Palace was influenced by various landscapes, rock formations and landmarks Gina has visited.
“One spiral reminded me of Cologne Cathedral. Another looks like a rock formation we saw jutting out of the sea in Thailand on the way back to the UK from Australia,” she says.
On Saturday, May 18 Gina will working in the gallery on Palaces. Children can bring in their own milk teeth and choose where to have them added to the sculpture.
“I will be adding more teeth on, so the sculpture grows. I glue them on and resin over. Here they are preserved forever. I wanted a safe place to keep the teeth.”
Above Palaces, hangs the moon-like Trophies of Empire III.
Gina says: “It looks like an IKEA lampshade but it is made from discarded hip bones – cast femur heads. Against the black background it forms a moon over Palaces.”
Along the wall are rows and rows of dental casts. Gina explains. “From a distance they look like soldiers’ graves.
“The casts were given to me by a dentist’s surgery with names, numbers, dates and ages so I knew the whole identity of the person. I asked: ‘shall I take the names off’. They said ‘ yes’ – but only as an afterthought.
“Dental casts are so deeply intimate – they are part of you. I’d find it difficult to donate a dental cast, but if I was two-stone obese I’d think nothing of donating a stone of fat.
“The whole project started with an interest in teeth and how difficult it was to find an NHS dentist. Before DNA, the only record of the deceased was by dental records.”
And then there are the original re-upholstered 1930s Art Deco chairs with an unusual filler.
“I stuffed the cushions with human fat given to me by a cosmetic surgeon,” Gina explains.
“Originally the cushions were latex, but latex dissolves and it got really messy.
“They are now made from first grade silicon – a double irony when you think of the recent PIP breast implant scandal.
“When you sit down the fat warms up and becomes quite liquid. It moulds to your shape like memory foam leaving your bum print.
“It’s all about taboos and disgust. The kind of people who would have Botox in the name of beauty would think this is disgusting. Why is there such a taboo about using body parts?”
Sara and Gina’s work is having a real impact and resulted in the setting up of an Arts and Ethics Panel with organisations including the Natural History Museum, NHS Ethics, the Wellcome Trust and the National Research Ethics.
Wasted has been touring science museums and art galleries across the UK including at Liverpool’s Bluecoat, the Science Museum, London, Imperial College London and the Centre of the Cell, London.
Gina has always been interested in art and biology.
“When I was little I wanted to be a vet or an artist. I used to watch animal operations on a weekend. Art and biology were my strong points,” says Gina.
Wasted also has a deeper, more personal meaning to Gina.
“This exhibition is inspired by my dad’s imprisonment at a Nazi concentration camp in Poland.
“He had seen his aunt, grand-mother and parents shot in front of him. Three of his brothers were arrested, but he and his sister survived by hiding in church pews,” she explains.
“As children we were hosting a priest from Poland. When he first came to our front door and my dad opened it the priest said: ‘I know someone who looks exactly like you’. It was his sister. Thirty-two years later, when I was seven, they were reunited.
“We met his sister in Poland and did the whole history trail. We went to Majdanek concentration camp. I saw piles of bones and the ovens where they placed the dead bodies.
“The Nazi’s used human fat from the bodies to make soap.
“I was deeply interested in how people would do this to anyone.”
Gina’s next project in Liverpool is Second Skin – she is this month making a face-mask of TV writer and producer Phil Redmond, who created Grange Hill, Brookside and Hollyoaks.
She said: “Davy Jones who worked on the special effects for Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter will be casting Phil Redmond’s face.
“Then we are growing a second skin with the University of Liverpool.”
* The Herbert is running Easter events for children, aged four and above until Thursday, April 11 called The Body Brilliant, with scientific art activities related to Gina’s exhibition.
* There will be Wasted Family Friendly tours on Saturday, April 13 – parents and children can join Gina Czarnecki and Professor Sara Rankin on a journey of exploration to discover more about the art works and the science behind them. Times: 1.30pm - 2.15pm and 2.45pm- 3.30pm.
Booking is not required.
* Meet the Artist on Saturday, May 18 – Gina will be in the gallery working on Palaces. Children can bring in their own milk teeth and choose where to have them added to the sculpture.
For more information visit www.theherbert.org