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Turning the Human Corpse into a Work of Art

Artists Christine Borland and Brody Condon are advancing artistic discovery through body donation.

by Catherine Chapman
05 August 2015, 7:15pm

Body donor hypostasis sample. Photo courtesy of Christine Borland and Brody Condon

The film below contains graphic images relating to anatomy and body donation. The contribution of the whole body donors and their families is gratefully acknowledged.

Circles of Focus at Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow 2015 from Brody Condon on Vimeo

Human body donation may advance scientific efforts or medical understanding, but in the view of artists Christine Borland and Brody Condon, studying cadavers could also be a tool for artistic experimentation and method. After visiting anatomy labs, the two are mixing a post-mortem process with a Neolithic ceramic production technique, creating an explorative artwork that actually requires human corpses.

“We became fascinated by deep geometric impressions in the skin of one body,” explain the artists, referring to what they witnessed at the University of Glasgow’s anatomy department. “It was made as result of hypostasis; the process whereby blood sinks to the lowest point of gravity and leaves an impression of whatever surface the body rests on immediately after death.”

While hypostasis is often used to analyze crime scenes, the imprinting effect it has on the human body is the start to Borland and Condon’s proposal for artistic body donation in an exhibit called Circles of Focus.

Bequeathed bodies will be placed in direct contact with a circular sculpture, manufacturing the hypostasis formation to leave specific marks on the human remains. Based on the dimensions of a 17th century mort house once used to protect the dead from body snatchers, the ceramic element of the proposal is created with 400 clay polygons made with ancient pottery techniques.

“To make the clay we shipped a large amount of mud dug from nearby Neolithic historical sites in Orkney,” say Borland and Condon, who spent three years in Scotland consulting with experimental archaeologist and potter Andrew Appelby. “After months of laborious preparation—dehydration, rehydration, removing stones—we combined this raw material with duck fat and animal hair and cut it into hundreds of polygonal shapes to make the sculpture.”

Fired in a 26-foot-wide, turf-walled kiln, the artists say these clay pieces are “completely contrary to the organic shapes found in Neolithic ceramics,” acting in contrast to the unlikely indents they’ll form on the body donors with hypostasis.

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Hypostasis Circle, turf kiln fired polygons, Orkney Clay, Sculptural element of the proposal. Photo courtesy of Christine Borland and Brody Condon

Since the project’s beginnings in 2011, Borland and Condon’s research has brought interest from anatomy educators and two future donors. “The donors have been incredibly supportive, but at all times we have had to proceed very slowly, which has helped the many different and complex relationships develop,” say Borland and Condon, now taking the project forward by determining legal proceedings.

While still being finalized, the results of Circles of Focus will be exhibited privately. An explanation of the processes, or body donation "proposal," however, has been shown at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow and will be presented at the Netherland’s Stroom Den Haag in 2016.

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Body donor paperwork as part of the exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Glasgow. Photo courtesy of Christine Borland and Brody Condon

Without an established time frame, the artists themselves may never witness the project’s end result. A trust fund is being established to ensure its longevity.

Borland, a 1997 Turner Prize nominee, has previously worked with topics surrounding death. Her 1994 From Life project presented a bronze facial reconstruction of a missing person based on a skeleton she ordered by mail. Similarly, in The Dead Teach the Living, Borland created a series of digitally reconstructed plaster heads inspired by anatomy collections from the 18th and 19th centuries.  

Where Borland’s art has grown out of anatomic research, Condon has produced performances and installations dealing with psychotherapy. 2014's Four Sessions, for example, saw the artist holding psychotherapy sessions with local craftspeople in Korea to discover their relationships with the objects they create.

Equally known for tackling difficult topics like these in order to create new perceptions, both artists believe “art and anatomy are intimately linked historically.” Now, they seek to develop art using new material processes like those found in Circles of Focus.

“In the future, we would ideally repeat this whole process in a series of diverse cultural contexts, negotiating many different attitudes to death and human remains,” they explain.

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Putting together a skeleton in Borland’s From Life (process) 1994. Photo by David Allen.

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Facial reconstruction in Borland’s From Life (process) 1994. Photo by Christine Borland.

Learn more about Circles of Focus on the artists' site here

Related:

"Obey" Arrested, Dead Bodies Sought: This Week in Art

Seeking: One Dead Body for One Dance Performance

Going Out in Style: Creative Urns and Burial Alternatives