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Wasted debates: using human remains in art

Illuminated translucent sculpture

Gina Czarnecki, Palace (2011). Photo: Sam Meech

Recently, I took part in a round table discussion on the use of human remains in art. The discussion participants included ethics experts, scientists, artists and curators. It was impressive in its breadth and depth of expertise. The round table was part of a series of events connected with Gina Czarnecki’s exhibition at Bluecoats, Liverpool, which includes a series of works from her Wasted series, which use donated human tissue (from living donors).

The topic relates to some of my interests in ethics in art and the display of human remains, and the discussion has sparked a lot of further thought. I would like to explain a little of the specific context in which this event took place, and give a brief summary of the discussion (you can also watch the full discussion online). In a later post, I want to suggest a possible way forward in terms of ethical reviews of artists’ projects.

I’ve known Gina Czarnecki for several years and had the privilege to work with her in 2002, when Arts Catalyst commissioned her work Silvers Alter for our exhibition CleanRooms. Most of her works in the exhibition at Bluecoats are film and interactive installations. Czarnecki has a striking and distinctive aesthetic working with image of the human body. However, one room displays her new body of work, which represents a new departure, shifting from moving image to the sculptural form and a preoccupation with the material. These works all incorporate ‘discarded’ body parts such as children’s milk teeth, and bones and fat from living, consenting donors, and explore the significance of these parts in relation to to history, mythology and science, as well as raising issues of consent and donation.

Image of a human being prone against a dark background

Gina Czarnecki, Infected (2009)

At the opening of the round table, Gina Czarnecki explained that her father was a concentration camp survivor, and this family history influences her work. She also explained her long-term exploration of biotechnology and its impact on the human image. I felt that this context was important in understanding her work.

People specifically donated their body fat and bones to her Wasted projects via a surgeon. (Children directly donate their milk teeth). But the surgeon was later advised that his involvement in the project might compromise his license to practice, not because of any ethical transgression, but because of “bad press”. Czarnecki voluntarily returned the bones.

Czarnecki, and her collaborating scientists, Sara Rankin and Rod Dillon, had a series of similarly disheartening experiences: approaching institutional collaborators to collaborate, who would at first be interested and then balk because of the lack of “ethical approval” (Rod Dillon outlines some of this process in his blog post).

In fact, there is no legal need for an artist to have ethical approval for the display of human tissues from living people, if they have given their consent. Nonetheless the institutions were nervous. But even were there a need for ethical approval for some procedure as part of an artist’s project, no body exists to give such approval. So there is a Catch 22, which is causing problems for increasing numbers of artists. Also, as Gina pointed out, quite apart from just allaying collaborators’ and funders’ concerns, many artists would like to have ethical approval for what they are doing, as well as sound advice on biosafety. A number of experts on the committee thought it was very strange that no one was prepared to say that this work was “ethical”.

At one point, the conversation became – as it often does in cross-disciplinary dialogues – bogged down in whether or not some of the participants liked or understood Czarnecki’s work. But to me the point, in terms of a discussion on ethics, is not whether someone likes Czarnecki’s Palace artistically or not, or whether it conveys clear ideas (about the science it engages with, for example). As Bronac Ferran noted at the meeting, art’s function isn’t necessarily to be aesthetically pleasing or to increase understanding, but often it is precisely to disrupt, confuse, and provoke. The point rather, in terms of ethics, is whether, at an early enough stage in the works’ development, the artist has informed herself and considered the ethical (and legal) implications of the work in detail, has an understanding of the possible implications, and can discuss how these might be addressed in the process and presentation of her work and any long-term consequences.

There is, of course, the thorny issue of “benefit”. Scientific ethics committees work by considering whether the potential benefits of a piece of research outweigh the risks (assuming that there are risks). I assume that it is not always straightforward to see the potential benefits of a piece of scientific research, let alone a work of art. I suppose there are both practical benefits to society – in art, perhaps this is the showing of the work publicly – and less tangible ones, in contributing to the “body of knowledge” of art (in the same way that science can contribute to knowledge as well as to technology or medical applications). In which case, perhaps the only way to assess the likely “benefit” of an artwork, if this is necessary in the context of risk, is to look at the track record of the artist, rather than relying on a subjective response to a specific proposal.

In a forthcoming blog post, I’ll try to outline a proposal for how we might practically approach this “grey area” in dealing with ethics between artists’ practice and the institution.

Two people (seen from the back) watch a video installation on which are naked people

Gina Czarnecki, Silvers Alter (2002)

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