To get your university art project featured on Time,the Huffington Post, the Independent, the Mirror, the Telegraph, and Die Welt in the same week isn't an easy feat. It takes talent, dedication, good connections, and, occasionally, boiling and eating a chunk of your own body.
That's the path taken by 25-year-old Norwegian Alexander Selvik Wengshoel. Wengshoel was born with a deformed hip and has spent most of his life in pain, enduring years in a wheelchair, hours of morphine treatment, and countless surgeries. Four years ago he was offered a metal hip replacement, which he accepted on the grounds that his doctors let him film the operation and keep the old hip. When he got home he cooked the flesh and ate it with some potato gratin and a glass of wine, all in the name of art.
I met up with him to find out why.
VICE: Your piece The Body Project has garnered a lot of media attention. When did you decide to turn your body into art?
Alexander Wengshoel: Back in 2010, I was studying animation. My tutor showed me the bloody art of Hermann Nitsch, and I was truly mesmerized and very inspired. Plus, I find blood fascinating. Then suddenly I got word that my final hip operation was going to take place-the surgery promised to make my life pain-free and livable. My tutor said that the story was too strong not to be documented and used. So I got the idea of filming it and taking the replaced hip bone home with me.
Alexander's new metal hip
How did you convince the hospital to let you film the surgery and take the hip home?
I called the hospital, and they immediately said no to filming. I kept on calling, though, several times a day, until they put me through to my main surgeon. He also turned me down at first, but after I told him my nightmare story and presented my project, he said, "Hell yes." Luckily he is very interested in art and loved the idea.
Then there was the question of the hip bone. Usually they crush it to powder and use it for medical molding materials. Keeping my hip was also totally out of the question. But I gave them an ultimatum: Either I keep it, or I go to another hospital. We argued until the surgeon finally was sick of the bitching nurses and let me have it my way.
Tell me about the big day.
It was March 18, 2010. I lay on a hospital bed, and people pushed me through long corridors toward a life with my new pain-free hip. I clenched my tripod and video camera between my legs. When we arrived at the operating theater, the medical staff started asking questions, but my surgeon told them to do exactly as I said. In the end, the anesthesiologist offered to hold the camera. Then he injected me with the greatest drug of all time. I was in paradise and started laughing my ass off, but then they injected me with something else and started dismantling my hip.
What happened when you woke up?
I tried to strangle my doctor. Five staff members jumped me, and I got another dose of something strong. The next time I opened my eyes, I saw my then girlfriend. I turned around in bed and rested my eyes on a bloody hip bone. It was vacuum-packed in a plastic bag, and a good-luck note from my surgeon was attached to it.
Taking a piece of yourself home in a plastic bag is one thing. But how did you end up eating your own tissue?
Originally my meat wasn't part of the project. I was just going to scrape it off and throw it away. As I gave the bone its first boil, in a little kettle, the flesh came off and I poured it into the wash sink. Then the shock hit me-I thought, Oh my god, this is my flesh.
I quickly concluded that it was too personal to photograph and picked up a piece. I stared at it for a long time and then said, "Fuck it." I put it into my mouth, tasted, chewed, swallowed, and got to crying uncontrollably. It was happiness, anger, and frustration combined.
Alexander never wants to throw away his old hip bone. Here it sits among medical paraphernalia that he's collected over the years.
Did you throw up?
No, after a couple of minutes of crying, it suddenly felt very natural, and I didn't think of it as human flesh anymore. So I continued boiling and scraping, then pulled out some chili and garlic and fried it in a pan. Salt and pepper were mandatory, and so was a good bottle of wine. Then I lit some candles and also whipped up some potato gratin. I sat down and ate it all-it became a ceremony, a ritual.
How was it defecating yourself?
Haha, I just went. There was nothing special about it, and it looked the same as always. I could have made a clone I guess, but nope.
What are your views on cannibalism?
I don't see it that way. Cannibalism is mostly based on the idea of killing another person and eating them-often raw. I like to compare my act to eating your placenta after giving birth. It's part of your body. You can call it cannibalism if you want, but I won't.
This year you exhibited your final project at your graduation show. The installation is made of three parts: the surgery video, a table of your long medical history, and a suspension rig. Can you tell me about that other stuff?
Most of the things and medicine you see on the table is from when I died in Thailand.
Last year I was riding a motorcycle in Koh Phangan without a helmet, very drunk and high. I hit a huge SUV and got pretty destroyed. Glass fragments penetrated my neck three millimeters away from my main artery. My head cracked open, but my cranium was intact. My shoulder was dislocated, my elbow and my fingers crushed. I was gone. I woke up five days later with metal plates and screws everywhere. Luckily, I had good insurance and ended up at a private hospital.
Alexander has been doing suspension for two years and has joined a community of Berlin-based body artists. This is part of his graduation show.
How do people react to your eating yourself?
The support I'm getting from all over the world has been incredible. People are curious, and many are disgusted. But I feel they misunderstand my project. I did not do it for attention. This is my story, and I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me. My life is great.
My goal is to get the audience reflecting. Life is short and people have the habit of running away from pain. One paper cut, and they pop pills. Pain is not physical-it's an idea, which you can learn how to handle. It doesn't need to be a negative thing. All I want is for the audience to think about what life is, and what your body means to you.
Has anyone else done something like this before?
No, and I want to change the art scene. Literally inject new blood into it. At the moment everything is so highbrow, theoretical, and philosophical. I want people to feel.
What's your next project?
I'll continue this project but contextualize it more through words. Next year, I'm planning on moving to Italy to set up a body-art gallery. After that, I don't know. My tattoos are also a part of The Body Project. I'm covering my whole body with ink, and when I die I won't be cremated-I want my skin to be flayed, salted, and stretched out like a canvas. My flesh is going to be pumped with a special silicone, which will turn me into a sort of sculpture. The hipbone in one hand and my trousers opened up so that the hip is exposed. It will be my last piece.
Who would do that for you?
I'm in talks with some people in Germany and Poland. It's extremely expensive, but, fuck it-I'm going to sacrifice my whole life to art. All I got is my body and my stories.