Annick Bureaud recently published her take on Gina Czarnecki and John Hunt’s Heirloom, a Trust Me, I’m an Artist project that was on display at Medical Museion in May 2016. Annick’s original journal entry is available here in French. The English translation is below.
It was with a real sense of impatience that I left for Copenhagen this past May to see Gina Czarnecki and John Hunt’s work, Heirloom, on display in the Medical Museion exhibition, The Body Collected: The Raw Materials of Medical Science from Cadaver to DNA.
This was the first time in this edition of Trust Me, I’m an Artist a project’s description (and its intentions?) troubled me and brought up an ethical question in my mind. So I was eager to confront myself with the work and with the perspectives and reflections of others: partners of the project, members of the ethics committee, and—of course—the artist and scientist who created it.
The project, Heirloom, can be summed up briefly as follows: it is a “living” portrait of Lola and Saskia, the artist’s daughters. Skin cells, collected when they were 11 and 13 years old, are cultivated on glass masks of the two girls’ faces. A 3D-printed sculpture, modelled from a high-precision scan of the girls’ heads, is presented next to the masks of cultured tissue.
Heirloom fits into a long artistic tradition of portraiture, but—although the masks were realised by means of traditional techniques—the addition of skin cultures and 3D printing take it in a new direction. Where does my feeling of unease come from? Why is there a sense of some sort of transgression?
Cultivating skin has become something quite normal, so there’s nothing outrageous about that (though the technique used is innovative in this case). Yet, it is the first sign of trouble—the first stumbling block. How is a “living” portrait different from a “fixed” portrait? By definition, a portrait is a substitute for the person—crafted in a different material. It is the presence of the absence of the other. But as the substitute, it is only an approximation, a moment in time (the Barthien “it has been/ça-a-été” of photography), ever imperfect and particularly incomplete. To create a portrait of someone from the same material that person is made up of, symbolically, is to create their double. Beyond the idea of cloning comes the spirit of The Invention of Morel, the beautiful novel by Adolfo Bioy Casares in which creating a double means killing the original.
The second stumbling block is the choice of “subjects,” namely the children of the artist. If the same project were a self-portrait or the portrait of some other random adult, it would probably not elicit the same emotional force. Here, the mother seems to have been suppressed by the artist with what might appear to be a manipulation of her children—or even an abuse of power against them—in order to realize her work.
It was with these questions that I approached Heirloom, which I will now describe in terms of its actual composition and shape.
Heirloom is an installation composed of different objects: the various casts and moulds of the faces of the children that were used to make the glass masks; examples of unusable (broken or defective) versions of these moulds; 3D printed sculptures of the faces of the girls; and a video retracing the steps of the project: the collection of cells via cheek swabs and then giving them a voice. At the heart of the installation, there were, firstly, incubators with masks immersed in a red-coloured nutrient bath in which cells are grown. Secondly, in sealed cases made of plexiglass, are two masks on which lie minuscule morsels of skin from the first culture.
In front of the installation, my uneasiness initially subsided. Some questions remain, while new ones arise (along with some answers).
One of the ethical questions raised by Heirloom is the right to collect cells from children. It was Gina Czarnecki who signed the consent form for the girls, as their mother, for a work she realized as an artist. If the father had been asked, would that have made a difference? What is the real reason for this authorisation except to cover the scientist using a normal scientific procedure while demonstrating its futility? Gina Czarnecki asks permission from her children to show this work in places where it could potentially embarrass them (for example, Liverpool, the city where the girls live). All those people who publish, throughout the year, photos and videos of their children on Facebook—from their birth to their first steps, birthday parties, diverse activities—do they have the same modesty, the same respect for the private lives of their offspring? Isn’t this the true parental cannibalism?
Moreover, Heirloom brings up a certain number of questions raised by research in regenerative medicine—between the hopes of restorative treatments (be it after a traumatic accident or neurodegenerative disease), the fantasies of cosmetic medicine, and the fears of modified humans. Between eternal youth and a segregationist rejection of ageing, might it be possible one day, old age having arrived, to reclaim one’s youthful face? But which face will we want: the face of our adolescence, of our twenties, or of our maturity?
In the end, the main reason that my uneasiness defused as I stood before Heirloom is that it is indeed a portrait. Just like a photo or a sculpture, cells are not the person. Of course, the cells contain the girls’ genetic makeup, but an individual is much more than his or her DNA. Heirloom falls within this dialectic of presence and absence, of life and death that is the portrait: the fragment that intends to show the whole, but inevitably fails; yet resists the power of evocation and—here, specifically—the impossible elixir of youth.
It was said, notably by Jean Hauser, that we were in the presence of living mortuary masks. Beyond the technical, restrictive aesthetic of the device, Gina Czarnecki chose to place the end of the hose that delivers nutrients and maintains circulation within the incubator upon the mouths of the glass faces—as if it were vital for breath. In the amniotic liquid of their artificial womb, the masks reminded me of Sleeping Beauty: beauties fast asleep in a modern forest.
What is it that causes us to feel uneasy? That destabilizes us? Ethics is a matter of limits. It is interesting to meet one’s own limits and confront them. And it is, indeed, there that art resides—on this fragile razor’s edge.
Christina Wilson, artistic consultant and member of Danish Council of Ethics;
Morten Hillgaard Bülow, historian of medicine and philosophy;
Ida Donkin, post-doc in epigenetics at NNF Center for research in basal metabolic rate;
Jens Hauser, researcher and curator.