Wednesday, June 20, 2012

‘Would You Donate Your Body Parts for Art and Science?’ at the Dana Centre, 19th June 2012

Palaces by Gina Czarnecki

They must put something in the water at the Dana Centre, I always walk out of there feeling much smarter than when I walked in.  Everything in the building seems to be  geared towards intelligent discussion and learning.  I sit down as an uninformed mug and when I've gotten up a few hours later I've got a head full of cutting edge scientific ideas and philosophy, and they manage to do all this without condescending or talking down to their audience! The people that tend to go there seem to be pretty switched on and forwarding thinking, consisting of a nice mix of science students and curious members of the public.

Tonight’s discussion revolved around the ethics of using human bodies and body parts in art and science.  The focus of the debate was the sculpture ‘Palaces’ by Gina Czarnecki which is created using donations of milk teeth, but discussion covered a wide range of interesting topics including what we would like our bodies used for after death, the ‘ick’ factor and differing cultural values concerning the dead as well as many others.  The only minor criticism I’d have of the night is that we didn’t get a chance to see the piece of art we were debating, I suppose I should have done my research and visited it beforehand, but all we had to go on were some rather small pictures to look at. 

The room was unfortunately sparsely populated due to the fact that there was an England football game on that evening, so I was invited to take a seat at the ‘Talkaoke Table’.  It’s an impressive doughnut shaped underlit thing, and it does a great job of promoting debate.  Sitting at the table you feel a little self-conscious.  For one, you’re being filmed and projected onto a video screen on two walls, and at any point you run the risk of having a microphone handed to you for your opinion.  It is a great leveller, and gives as much priority and importance to the Professor of Cardiac Pharmacology at Imperial College (Sian Harding) as it does to some bozo off the street (me).

The experts at the debate were all singularly well informed on their subjects whilst also being very friendly and accommodating.  They were, Gina Czarnecki, artist, Sara Rankin, Professor of Leukocyte and Stem Cell Biology at Imperial College, the above mentioned Sian Harding, and Hannah Redler, Head of Arts Projects at the Science Museum. Chairing the debate was Mikey Weinkove, who sat in the centre of the ‘doughnut’ and hosted proceedings. 

'For the Love of God' by Damien Hirst
Initially, I had assumed that using human body parts in art was a recent development.  The current defining image of Damien Hirst (the most successful contemporary artist) is a diamond encrusted platinum cast human skull with the original teeth, Marc Quinn’s ‘Self’ also attracted significant publicity as well as Gunter von Hagen's ‘Bodyworlds’ touring exhibition. However, as I realised last night, there is a rich historical tradition of using parts of the human body for artistic and religious reasons.

'Self' by Marc Quinn

On one hand it is fairly common in history for human body parts to be used as sacred objects; the various body parts of Saints being preserved in medieval reliquaries; the Saxon practice of making amulets from milk teeth to mark passage into adulthood.  In another, the human body is used purely as an ingredient, as in the paint pigment ‘Mummy brown’ (favoured by the pre-Raphaelites) which was composed of ground up Egyptian mummies. 

'Morgan Le Fay' by Frederick Sandys
(made with ground up dead people, folks!)
It is an interesting thought experiment to ponder your own feelings about your body being used for art.  There is a strange disconnection that comes from thinking of your body as a source of art materials, or as spare parts.  It seems a little morbid to imagine bits of yourself on display in an art gallery.  Even though I'm of the belief that once my number comes up, that’s it for me consciousnesswise the thought of how my body will ultimately wind up still occasionally nags at me.  The pragmatic answer to this nagging feeling is that no matter what my preferences are on what will happen to me once I’m dead it will be for others to decide what will happen to my body (and I won’t care anyway, as I’ll be dead). 

Even so, we like to tell ourselves that we’ll have a say in how we will be used after death, but frequently the wishes of the dead are over-ridden.  For example, someone donating their body to medical science in the belief that their death will advance medical science might end up being used for close-range ballistics tests or to find out the effectiveness of a new type of landmine.  Sometimes, even if the explicit wishes of the dead are made public, they will be ignored.  A prime candidate for this is the skeleton of Charles Byrne, the ‘Irish Giant’ who stood 7’7” tall and is currently on display in the Hunterian anatomy museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.  He died in 1783 and, seemingly mindful of the greedy eyes of contemporary curiosity collectors, requested to be buried at sea.  Almost immediately upon his death his wards were bribed by anatomist John Hunter, the body was seized and put on public display where it has remained ever since.  Today, scientists now feel that we have gotten all possible scientific insights from his body, and that we should finally respect the 230 year old wishes of the deceased and bury him at sea.

Skeleton of Charles Byrne - notably not buried at sea
Complying with his wishes opens a rather complicated can of worms though.  There are human remains on display in many museums in London that have been transplanted from around the world.  A vast educational resource would be lost if we were to respect the wishes of these long-dead people.  It is notable that the British Museum has already repatriated thousand year old aboriginal remains to Tasmania in accordance with the wishes of their descendants.  So there is a lot of debate as to where to strike an ethical balance on whether human remains are on display for entertainment or education reasons.

So what about consent in the modern day?  It is hardly unusual for people to request that their bodies be donated to science, but should this also cover them being used for artistic reasons?  There was discussion as to whether there should be a separate donor card explaining that you’d like your body to be donated to ‘art’ after you’ve died.  I think that this is a bad idea and just throws up an unnecessary level of confusion during the short window in which a body is viable as a source for donated organs.  However there has been some controversy when artists have appropriated human tissue for their works using bodies donated on the basis that they’d be used for scientific research.  The American artist Andrew Krasnow has exhibited a sculpture of a heart made from human skin sourced from bodies donated to science.  Is it ethical to use a part of someone in this way?  Would it cause unnecessary distress to friends and family of the deceased to learn that a visible part of their loved one was on display in a gallery somewhere?

'Hollow Muscle' by Andrew Krasnow
Also mentioned in debate about the source of human bodies and parts was Gunter von Hagens' ‘Bodyworlds’ exhibition.  It was said during the debate that the bodies exhibited were those of Chinese prisoners, which did strike as particularly unethical, particularly if they were the bodies of political dissidents.  I was relieved to find out later on after doing some research that this was not the case, and that this claim was the subject of a successful libel claim against ‘Der Spiegel’ by von Hagens.  It seems that rather than having to depend on somewhat shady means, that they’re over-applied for candidates for plastination.  Apparently there have been over 9000 bodies pledged specifically to the project by the public, a pretty astonishing turnout.

From 'Bodyworlds' by Gunter von Hagens
The issue of consent was discussed in detail in relation to ‘Palaces’ and obtaining enough milk teeth from children to use as building material.  I examined the leaflet distributed to children that lets them send their milk teeth to the team, and it implores children to help the tooth fairy construct her palace.  This, while being almost entirely harmless, is still ultimately a lie, and the project hinges on the artist getting the consent of parents to lie to their children in order to gain their unwanted body parts.  It’s a complicated ethical situation, but one that I think in this case has been neatly handled.  It was mentioned that uptake has not been as high as they were hoping – they have only collected about 900 teeth (although this seems like a lot to me) and are  still hoping for much more. 

I think that these opinions on what they you’d like to happen to your body exist as a comforting feeling prior to death.  Believing that your body will go on to benefit the future of mankind can provide some solace, and help avoid feelings that your life is, in the grand scale of things, pretty meaningless.  Our bodies being recycled into art, science and medicine confers upon us a kind of immortality.  It’s this feeling of continuity with the past and the future that is an important psychological crutch that helps us (and particularly helps those for whom death is an immediate concern). 

If we begin to ignore the wishes of the dead, then this weakens the psychological value of that comforting idea.  If a person soon to die knows that a friend specifically wished that all of their organs be donated, or that their body be donated to be used in a piece of art and those wishes were overridden upon their death then why should they bother making post-mortem plans for themselves?  Conversely, once a person is dead then their body is no longer their own.  If someone wished in their will that their body be donated to Gunter von Hagens, and their family found the idea distressing then I think the wishes of those still living should supersede those of the dead.

The majority of us in developed nations live in a sanitised, somewhat antiseptic world.  We are generally not confronted with blood, sewage and gore on a daily basis.  Society has developed complicated systems to separate us from these ‘disgusting’ things.  A Londoner 300 years ago would think nothing of dumping their waste in the unpaved streets, and butchers would slaughter animals in the back of their shops, disposing of the entrails as best they could.  The majority of us are a few steps removed from that now.  Sewerage systems whisk our waste away from us at the push of a button, and the shrinkwrapped meat sold in supermarkets is rarely associated with an actual living animal.  The use of human bodies and body parts in art serves to remind us of the pumping, living messy machinery of life that lies under our skin and our streets.  It forces us to confront an idea of ourselves as physical creatures of bone and muscle rather than as the illuminated intellectual beings we would like to imagine ourselves as.  What I took away from this debate was a view of the human body as a structure, as a source of raw materials and as an inescapably physical object, anchoring us to the world around us, and to each other.

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