In Development Interview: Helen Pynor and ‘Habitation’ — Experimenta

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In this interview we spoke to Helen Pynor about her multifaceted work ‘Habitation’, which challenges the animate-inanimate boundary in the body. Helen discusses her personal experience of surgery, the artists and academics whose ideas inform this ambitious artwork, the alchemical process of turning bone into china, and her upcoming residency with SymbioticA.

Experimenta: What led to your response to the theme of Experimenta Life Forms?

Helen: My practice explores ambiguous states such as the life-death boundary, and when I needed to have hip replacement surgery last year as a result of a congenital hip abnormality, I became fascinated with the animate-inanimate boundary that was about to be enacted in my own body.

A number of theorists and artists helped guide my thinking around this. Monika Bakke talks about ‘lithic intimacy’ – life’s diverse, intimate relationships of exchange and inter-species companionship with minerals. Although prosthetics could be seen as provoking the collapse of the animate/inanimate boundary, Bakke makes clear that life has always engaged in intimate relations with minerals, our calciferous skeletons being but one example. Living organisms have been responsible for the evolution of many mineral species, and life as we know it could not have evolved without mineral collaboration.

Experimenta: How do you conceive what the medical community terms ‘bio-waste’?

Helen: I felt strongly that I wanted to keep the bone material that would be excised from my body during surgery. I find it strange, and sad, that one moment our tissue can be a living breathing part of our body, and the next moment consigned to the biohazardous waste bin, destined for cremation and then some final destination (landfill perhaps? … I’m still looking into this). I see our tissues as ‘life forms’ in their own right, embedded with our biological and emotional histories and full of latent material and symbolic potential.

Artist Jaden J. A. Hastings has researched the legal and policy frameworks around retaining surgically excised tissues and I was able to draw on her research to negotiate permission to keep my bone. Interestingly in Australia the policies support patients to keep their excised tissues in most cases, should they want to, but most surgeons aren’t aware of this

Experimenta: How are you experimenting in using your femur bone as material? And tell us more about learning to create with bone china ceramics.

Helen: I’m using my femur bone material to make bone china ceramic sculptures. Bone china clay is made from up to 50% animal bone and in my case the clay will have my own bone material alongside animal bone. The process of making bone china clay from scratch is like an alchemical ritual, practiced much as it was in the 18th century, and these material transformations are an important sub-text to Habitation. They speak of the body’s transformation from one form to another, the redemption of my own ‘biohazardous waste’ into something precious and I hope, resonant with meaning, and the primal alchemical relationship between my soft tissues and the calcium and other mineral species in my bones. In the calcining step, the bone is heated to 1000 degrees in a ceramics kiln which burns off the soft tissue and leaves only the mineral content of the bone, making manifest our mineral nature. Artist and academic Jan Guy, who’s previously made bone china from bird bones, has been my invaluable mentor through this process.

The biomedical company who manufactured my hip prosthesis gave me access to my pre-surgery CT scan data, which I’ve used to make CNC-routed, life-size 3D models of my own pelvis and femur bones, including my hip abnormality. I’m casting these in the bone china clay containing my bone material, and introducing coral as a further metaphoric layer. 

Experimenta: Can you talk more about the collaborations have you undertaken in developing this work? And what will you be exploring in your upcoming residency at SymbioticA?

Helen: The work I’ll be doing at SymbioticA takes up Bakke’s notion of lithic intimacy – acts of touch and exchange between living tissue and prosthetics. I also want to challenge the idea of the body as passive recipient of medical implants – the success of implants always relies on the body’s agency. My implant is ‘cementless’ meaning no glues are used to attach the implant to the bone. Instead, the implant’s crystalline calciferous coating, that mirrors the structure of bone, stimulates the patient’s bone cells to grow into fissures in the coating, and this is what forms the lock-tight attachment. At SymbioticA I plan to re-stage this dynamic exchange by growing commercially available human bone cells on small samples of the prosthesis coating using tissue culture techniques, and use microscopy to image cells growing into the tiny crevices of the coating. I’m intrigued by the molecular and atomic exchanges that will inevitably take place between cells and the prosthesis coating, the ensuing animate/inanimate boundary collapse, and the coral-like way these soft-bodied cells take up habitation in this mineral structure. 

Experimenta Life Forms International Triennial of Media Art

Exploring how biological and artificial life are challenging human-centric thinking, Experimenta Life Forms will be Experimenta’s 8th national touring exhibition. It premieres in 2021 and will tour nationally until 2023. 

‘Habitation’ by Helen Pynor is an Experimenta and SymbioticA commission.