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

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Written & Facilitated by Helen Pynor

Hosted by Tweed Regional Gallery (NSW)

Tooth Fairies for Adults: Rituals for our Tissues was an Experimenta workshop that explored the fate of our tissues once they leave our bodies.

For this workshop we were able to meet at Tweed Regional Gallery (NSW), a very different experience after previous workshops that were facilitated over Zoom. It was a small intimate group, participants made beautiful and poignant pieces that explored their own experiences of physical injury, chronic illness, surgery, or loss.

Our conversation ranged across a diverse span of topics as we sewed. One participant spoke about a ritual practice that continues today in Sicily, Italy. People experiencing a problem with one of their organs will sew a representation of their organ and bury it on a particular volcanic mountain on the island. If the person can’t get to the mountain a surrogate can go to the mountain and bury it for them. The practice is believed to help the person recover from their illness. It’s interesting to reflect on the power of rituals such as these to catalyse healing processes, a phenomenon that perhaps has parallels to the placebo effect. The placebo effect is dealt with in a very perfunctory way in clinical trial protocols as an effect that must be nullified against the experimental protocol being tested. And yet the fact that the placebo effect exists as a significant force speaks to how much is yet to be understood about the relationship between mind, belief and the body’s healing capacities. The placebo effect itself is a fascinating object for study.

Perhaps participation in a clinical trial could be regarded as a type a ‘ritual’ practice, around which hopes and beliefs about healing might cluster. There are numerous other phenomena, such as lucid near-death experiences, that are evidently ‘real’ in the sense that countless people have described them and there are consistent elements to these experiences, yet these phenomena remain largely unexplained using the tools available to Western science.

Another participant spoke of having a wisdom tooth removed under anaesthetic, and her request that the tooth be kept for her. When she awoke from the anaesthetic she was told that her tooth had been smashed during the process of extraction, a necessary process to get the embedded tooth out, so they didn’t keep it. Stories like these are quite common and speak to the loss of agency we have when we are under anaesthetic and decisions about our tissues are made in our absence.

Our conversation veered off into the microbiome and the way it is forcing a paradigm shift in Western medicine – our bodies are no longer sovereign objects but rather porous vessels made up of complex multispecies assemblages. The non-human parts of these assemblages have significant impacts on our health and probably even our mental health.

A related ‘cross-species assemblage’ one participant spoke about is the fascinating and rather bizarre case of ‘zombie ants.’ Fungus species Ophiocordyceps unilateralis infects the body of the ant and slowly takes over its behaviour. “As the infection advances, the enthralled ant is compelled to leave its nest for a more humid microclimate that’s favourable to the fungus’ growth. The ant is compelled to descend to a vantage point about 10 inches off the ground, sink its jaws into a leaf vein on the north side of a plant, and wait for death” (Jennifer Lu, National Geographic, 18 April 2019). Meanwhile the fungus has been slowly feeding on the innards of the ant, and several days after the death of the ant, sends a fruiting body out through the dead ant’s head. How this fungal invasion could possibly engineer ant behaviour is such precise ways is a mystery scientists are keen to unpack.

Later our conversation turned to rituals for burying the dead, and the diversity of options that are now emerging. These include eco-friendly burials in which the body is wrapped in biodegradable fabric and buried directly into the ground, removing the barrier of a coffin and allowing the body to compost more quickly back into the soil. An above-ground composting process, that transforms the body into compost within several months, is now available in some places such as the US state of Washington.

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