Workshop Reflections ⟶ Tooth Fairies for Adults: Rituals for our Tissues — Experimenta

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Written By Helen Pynor

Tooth Fairies for Adults: Rituals for our Tissues was an Experimenta workshop I facilitated that explored the fate of our tissues once they leave our bodies, and how to create more respectful fates for these tissues. It took us into the new terrain of running a workshop online, in response to the widespread lockdowns many of us are in. Participants received a pack through the post containing objects to support a tactile activity.

eight participants from helen pynor workshop holding up artworks

[Image caption – screen capture of workshop via an online video platform. Participants are in grid view, holding up their artworks, with cotton and materials stitched into images of body parts printed onto transparent paper.]

We used the Tooth Fairy ritual as a starting point, this small ritual that acknowledges children’s loss of teeth as a small rite of passage in their growing up. A group conversation was held while participants stitched into old anatomical illustrations printed onto tracing paper, using a variety of sewing materials including different coloured cottons, surgical gauze and various clasps. We discussed the deep roots of sewing and other yarn-based practices as a forum for conversation and connection. Over the short period of the workshop participants created beautiful and powerfully visceral works, almost as if the tracing paper had become skin and it was bodies that were being pierced.

A range of prompts were offered into the circle, including the artwork Habitation, commissioned for the Experimenta Life Forms Triennial, where I used my own surgically excised femur head to make a bone china replica of my excised bone.

Workshop 1

[Image caption: up close shots of the texture and materials used by participants to sew into printed pieces of paper – create as they contributed to an online conversation with artists Helen Pynor] These works are by Kathryn, Jo, Jane and Etta.

Our conversation ranged across a wide range of topics. Participants spoke (about their own experience or a family member’s) of keeping explanted teeth, as a way to connect with a body part that was hidden from them (wisdom teeth that had not yet erupted) or to incorporate into an art practice to renew and breath new vitality into tooth tissue that had died. A participant spoke of keeping the materials surrounding medical interventions, such as suture threads, going way back to childhood. Another participant spoke of keeping cells from an explanted fibroma, and using tissue culture techniques to develop an immortal cell line from the fibroma to produce alternative ‘progeny’ for herself, as part of her art practice. We talked about having prosthetic objects in our bodies, and how to make sense at an experiential level of having these ‘outsiders’ in our body, within a medical system that offers little support in this area, but rather deals with prosthetics from a largely technocratic perspective. We discussed the ambiguity of terminated pregnancies, the complex feelings that can surround terminations. And excised cancer tissues, and the feelings of fear and threat people may have about these tissues – there may be no desire to ‘honour’ these tissues. We discussed organ and tissue transplants, what this means for donors and recipients, body memory that travels with donated organs, and the uncanny nature of donated eyes.

Workshop 2

In this workshop we also ranged across rich, varied terrain. A participant questioned why eating, making into pills, and burying placentas is widely accepted, while obtaining other tissues that come from the body is usually resisted by medical institutions. Participants spoke about their own encounters with medical procedures, such as having a small metal ‘marker’ embedded in breast tissue, a request to keep eye cataracts that were surgically removed being refused, and an uncomfortable and jarring experience of having a melanoma removed. Participants spoke of having teeth removed, and an upcoming tooth excision that is triggering intense emotion. We spoke at length about the bodies of the dead, and how in other cultures death is integrated more seamlessly into life. A participant spoke of spending time in a city in India, and seeing wrapped bodies attached to the roof rack of a car, while the driver stopped at a cafe to get a chai. We spoke about the rituals surrounding death in some other cultures, ancient and contemporary, the deeper purpose of ritual, and how encounters with the bodies or remains of the dead are normal practices. We spoke about death as a social act, and how in our culture we usually don’t have an opportunity to engage with the bodies of the dead. A participant spoke of forbidden practices of necromancy. One participant spoke of her intention to become a body donor, having benefitted from performing dissections on cadavers in her own osteopathic training, and the respectful ways these bodies are cremated and the ashes scattered after they have been used for teaching and learning.

Helen Pynor’s artwork ‘Habitation’ is exhibiting as part of Experimenta Life Forms: International Triennial of Media Art, touring nationally until 2024