Gina Czarnecki and John Hunt with Saskia and Lola Czarnecki-Stubbs.
In Heirloom, artist Gina Czarnecki and professor of clinical sciences John Hunt grow skin portraits of the artist’s daughters from their own cells, onto traditionally produced glass casts of their faces. The growing portraits are bathed in a liquid that feeds them and prevents infection. When the cells reach the thickness of tissue paper they are removed, preserved, and displayed as framed portraits. Heirloom subverts the notion of the portrait, representing a person not in paint or oils, but with their own biological material. As the cells grow, are removed, and grow again, does the link between portrait and sitter lie in the physical resemblance or the cellular material?
The starting point of Heirloom was the idea of having your teenage face back in the future, and the methods developed could offer new possibilities for facial reconstruction and cosmetic modification. Along with Director of Face Lab, professor Caroline Wilkinson, Gina Czarnecki and John Hunt have also become interested in how these methods could be applied on a wider scale – if biobanks stored information about the 3D structure of the face along with youthful skin cells, could everyone have their own facial heirloom?
The exhibition at Medical Museion shows an artwork; an installation of living and preserved portraits. Alongside the skin portraits, visitors encounter laboratory equipment, face moulds, casts, and 3D scans that reveal the process of the artwork: a process that could also develop into future medical procedures or into DIY methods. The exhibition is also a snapshot of an ongoing collaboration – the technical methods will continue to evolve as the project is exhibited in Korea, Liverpool, and Amsterdam.
The ethics debate
On May 25th, an ethics panel debated the ethical questions surrounding the making of the work, including issues of consent, parental relationships, and the growth of human cells in public spaces. They also discussed the ethical issues the work brings forth, elucidates, and challenges, including the regulation of DIY cell therapies, the ethics of access to personalised medicine, and the moral landscape surrounding the vision of a re-grown youthful appearance.
The panel included: Christina Wilson, Art Advisor and member of The Danish Council on Ethics; Morten Hillgaard Bülow, medical historian and philosopher; Ida Donkin, postdoctoral researcher in epigenetics at the NNF Center for Basic Metabolic Research and finalist in the PhD Cup 2016; and Jens Hauser, Paris and Copenhagen based media studies scholar and art curator. Karin Tybjerg from Medical Museion moderated.
In two hands-on workshops, Gina Czarnecki and scientist Dr. Rod Dillon, who collaborated on Gina’s Quarantine and Wasted Debates artworks, introduced basic techniques for gathering, growing, and caring for different kinds of cells. Participants encountered their own cells under microscopes, handled kombucha fungus “skin”, and discussed with Gina and Rod why artists and scientists might want to work together and the ethical issues they might face both in institutions and in DIY contexts. A curator from The Body Collected exhibition joined discussions about how cells are collected and stored in the different worlds of art, science, and museums.
Relationship to other projects at Medical Museion
Heirloom complements the exhibition The Body Collected at Medical Museion, which examines how scientists have collected bodily materials to gain medical knowledge. The exhibition concludes with biobanks of today, leading visitors on to the vision Heirloom offers of a ‘biobank’ of the future. Placing the two exhibitions alongside each other also invites us to compare how scientists and artists produce new insights from biological materials, and how cells are collected, cared for, and understood in these different worlds. The project also contributes to Medical Museion and the NNF Center for Basic Metabolic Research (CBMR)’s ongoing investigation of the capacity of art to reveal the processes of biomedicine, and the impact of hands-on experience.
The project is supported by: Arts Council England; The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research (CBMR), University of Copenhagen; and Arbejdsmarkedets Feriefond. Read more about collaborators and funding here.
Heirloom Contributors and Collaborators in the UK:
Prof. Caroline Wilkinson (scientific collaborator), FaceLab at LJMU
Dr Rod Dillon (scientific collaborator and workshops), University of Leicester
Dave Jones (face casting), Glyndwr University
Prof. Andy Wright
Radames Anja, FactLab Liverpool
Jen Baxter, glass artist (glass face casts)
James Nixon (3D printing)
Mark Roughly (3D face scans), Facelab at LJMU
Polly Moseley (concept engagement and evaluation)
Dan Farrimond (web and live feed)
The University of Liverpool
Liverpool John Moors University
Liverpool Hope University
Work developed for display with Medical Museion Curatorial Team:
Design and Production at Medical Museion: