Prosthetics are a lot of things — practical, functional, useful — but pretty they are not. Your standard prosthetic leg is typically nothing more than flesh-colored hunk of plastic designed, if anything, to be ignored or overlooked. But a handful of visionaries out there think there’s a better way. They’re not only making prosthetics pretty. They’re making them into works of art.
Priscilla Sutton is one of these visionaries. A below-the-knee amputee herself, Sutton’s taken a keen interest in coming up with new uses for old prosthetics, namely repurposing them as sculptures or three-dimensional canvases. “I was cleaning my home and I found two old legs in my cupboard,” said Sutton. “I thought it was a bit crazy to keep hoarding my legs.”
“Mr Chips Goes to Washington” by Giles Kilham, via
The Australian curator recently unveiled an entire exhibition of altered prosthetics in London called “Spare Parts,” as a sideshow of sorts to the Paralympic Games that are starting there this week. Featuring work from a variety of artists including Sutton herself, the show includes everything from a little girl’s leg wrapped in crochet and painted with henna to a painted arm (pictured above) propped up like a tower and topped with a yellow-toothed head emerging screaming from an oversized vagina. The latter piece, by the way, is called “Mr. Chips Goes to Washington,” and it’s stunning.
“Born of Diablo” by Tim Rix, via
Unsurprisingly, the notion of using these wood and plastic body parts in art is not a new one. In the past, however, there’s been a bit more of a utilitarian twist on prosthetic art. Scott Summit is the founder and chief technology officer of a next generation prosthetics company called Bespoke Innovations. These guys aren’t necessarily creating pieces to be displayed in an art gallery but inevitably produce what they’d call works of art. For a prosthetic leg, for instance, they’d start with a 3D scan of the remaining leg and use that it to create a model for the prosthetic. Then, working with the amputee, they’d design the new limb with any and all custom options they want, including but not limited to a leather cover (weird) or laser-etched tattoos. “I set out to create an option for an amputee that invites an individual personality and taste to play the dominant role in the design process,” says Summit. “The goal is to transform a product from something that certain people need into something that they love.”
Then, you have the high fashion approach to prosthetics. There’s a whole host of designers out there who’ve experimented with integrating prosthetics into their work, and it seems like Aimee Mullins is their favorite model. Alexander McQueen created a pair of legs for Mullins carved with grapevines and magnolias, for instance. The definition of prosthetics is also a little more flexible in this realm. Artist Una Burke made a name for herself by creating what she calls “sculptural prosthetics.” While not necessarily wearable, these arm, leg and body pieces extend the body into new shapes and forms. They sort of look like weird shaped suits of armor.
From here on out, prosthetic art can only get more interesting. As advances in technology allow for robotic and even mind-controlled limbs, there’s definitely a lot of new ground to be covered and uncanny sculptures to be built. We can only hope that some of them will be ready-to-wear.