Human waste

Maurice Davies, 22.02.2012
Maurice Davies: blog
Canope is the most memorable contemporary artwork I’ve seen this year.

It consists of two leather-upholstered art deco armchairs, completely normal, except that the seat cushions are made of human fat. It’s a striking object, resonant with meanings.

The fat is waste, left behind after medical procedures, and not wanted for research. Canope is part of a small series of work, called Wasted, that all incorporate human material.

Another work in the series includes milk teeth, another human hip bones. They are by artist Gina Czarnecki, and are on show at Liverpool’s Bluecoat Gallery before heading to the Science Museum in London and then, in 2013, the Herbert in Coventry.

I got to know about them last year, when Gina sought advice from the Museums Association’s Ethics Committee.

She was having difficulties in determining whether it was considered ethical for her to use human material in her artworks.

She was collaborating with medics and scientists who normally work within a strict framework of research ethics committees. They were uncomfortable that she didn’t have formal ethical approval.

The MA Ethics Committee gave some advice but didn’t feel it had the expertise or remit to give a ruling. The Human Tissue Authority said that their key requirement was that the donors had given informed consent, which they had.

Frustrated by this expectation of ethical regulation, but with no one taking responsibility for giving ethical approval, Gina called a group of people together to a roundtable to discuss the issue. That’s how I found myself in Liverpool with artists, ethicists, scientists, curators, and a BBC reporter, among others.

We gave the issue a thorough run around, covering points such as: how approval could be given to a proposal for an artwork, when it’s impossible to say in advance what the art will be like, or even what the artist’s process will be, and whether artists have a responsibility to wider society (of course they do!)

There seemed to be general agreement with the MA’s view that the key role of ethics is encouraging thoughtful, responsible, transparent practice.

Most of the discussion was about the artistic process, but I was interested in the reception by audiences. I said that I found Gina’s artworks under-interpreted.

Listening to her talking about them gave me an insight into the richness of their meanings, but looking at them in the gallery was a far less engaging experience.

Riding an old hobby horse, I suggested that inadequate interpretation was an ethical issue, too.

I expected people to reply with the usual contemporary art lines that the art needed to be left to speak for itself and that it was wrong to restrict the meanings by writing them down.

Rather touchingly, Gina was worried that I hadn’t got to grips with what she was trying to say and rather than justifying the shortage of interpretation wondered if the problem was that she was “a crap communicator”.

Boy, did I feel guilty.

But the point remains: the ethical issues around displaying human remains are not just should or shouldn’t you, but how and why would you, and how are you going to explain it?

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26.02.2012, 21:46
One of the first decisions in my in-tray when I started in my current role was to tell an artist wanting to use human arm bones in an installation that this was not acceptable. They had been sourced from a US supplier who seemed to have bought from cleared graveyards in China and India, nor was there any interpretation. We insisted on plastic replicas. No objections from contemporary gallery who showed same exhibition directly afterwards. Also made us think carefully about interpretation of human remains on display at same time 25 feet away in ancient Egypt gallery.