This Artist Is Crushing His Dead Father's Skull to Work Through Their 'Weird Relationship'

In using his late father's skull to clone his own, Lee Wagstaff aims to explore the pair's estranged relationship, as well as themes of religious worship, deification, and eternal life.

Jack Mills

Lee Wagstaff at Rise, his gallery in Berlin

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

A few years ago, artist Lee Wagstaff came into possession of his dad's skull. Instead of bombing the cranium with lily bulbs and soil and dropping it off at the nearest curiosity shop, he plans to crush it and use the chalky remains for his newest project: a 3D-printed replica of his own skull.

In using his late father's head to clone his own, the Royal College of Art PhD student aims to explore the pair's estranged relationship, as well as themes of religious worship, deification, and eternal life. The finished skull—set to be unveiled in London next year—will also be engraved with patterns mimicking Wagstaff's geometric head tattoos.

This isn't the first time the sculptor has recycled body matter in the name of concept art. Earlier this year, he jizzed on a Sisters of Mercy T-shirt every night for three and a half months and showed the work "100 Nights of Solitude" in his Berlin gallery, Rise. Another project, "Shroud," was a self-portrait, screen-printed in his own blood. David Bowie  ​called it "Disquietingly heroic and [...] spiritually arrogant." 

After pinning him down for an interview, we chatted skulls, scanners, and Southend.

A digital mock-up of the 3D-printed skull

VICE: Hi, Lee. How did you get ahold of your dad's skull?
Lee Wagstaff: The skull was left to me—bequeathed to me. I'm a bit secretive about how I got it because of family stuff. 

Fair enough. What made you want to incorporate it into your art?
I immediately thought about how you could replace the powders you'd use for a typical 3D print. For me, bodily materials are the same as other art materials, like ink, or paint, or plaster. In tribal art, these things are quite commonly used—blood, things like that. It's only in a more sanitized, contemporary world that people tend to get sensational about anything a little bit icky.

Are there not some legal implications as well, though?
Anything to do with human body parts—especially in the UK—is very difficult to work with, because you have to have a license to work with them and to display them and to do anything with them. I did some work with blood a long time ago [2000's "Shroud"], but since then the rules have changed. Even hair or skin samples you have to have a human tissue license to use.

"Shroud," Lee's self-portrait, screen-printed in his own blood 

You and your father didn't speak for years before his death, right?
We had quite a difficult relationship. I didn't see him for 15 years—until he was on his deathbed, in fact, and that was the last time I saw him. He was unconscious. The project's partly about working through this weird relationship. 

I was interested in the transference of things that my father was and what he stood for. In the tradition of relics, anything that has touched a holy or special person is somehow imbued with the qualities of that person. And to touch it—or even look at it—will somehow transfuse them to you. I'm interested in this idea of the transference of those qualities.

What did he do for a living?
My father was a hunter, and I'm vegan and quite squeamish about dead things. Well, it was more like shooting—like game birds and stuff like that. He was a part-time game-keeper at one point, so he was game-keeping on some posh estate and would rear pheasants, then release them, and then take posh people to go and shoot them. 

I grew up in a traditional house in Southend, but it was always full of pigeons and rabbits. All the kids at school would want to come back and see all these things. I think he always had this desire to be some kind of country gentleman, which later in his life he kind of fulfilled. He left the family and went to live in the countryside. 

We grew up with dead things around us, so I have this interest in anatomy, going back to how things work. Once something is dead—once it's stripped of all its life and muscles—it just kind of becomes an object, and you have to touch it and really believe that it is what it was.

Lee and his head tattoos

But as an object, it also becomes a piece of art. 
Art has a long history of using bones, skeletons, and skulls in painting and sculpture, so I think [my project] feeds into that tradition. People have other people's ashes in their houses for a really long time, and, for me, that's a little bit strange. I'm more attached to personal items, like a cup or a piece of clothing. I think I'd be more sensitive about something like that, rather than something that is stripped of its life. So I don't feel too sensitive about [the skull].

How are you going to go about replicating your skull? Do you create a print of it first?
It'll depend on the technology that I have access to. I've spoken to a number of radiologists, and the best way to get the cleanest, the best, and most detailed scan of the skull is to get a high resolution X-ray. Then there's quite a lot of editing software that can translate visual scans into workable STL files. But, in the UK, it's very difficult to get an X-ray for non-medical reasons, so I'll probably have to have it done privately or in Europe. 

I'm in talks with a few places, but quite often when people hear that I'm going to do something like this, they're very reluctant to be involved. Everyone is very cautious at the moment. It's all about your reputation online, how you're perceived to the outside world and how it might affect your business. I wanted to etch the tattoo that I have on my head into the skull. It's a bit like a lot of Malian artifacts, where the tattooing was so intense that it almost went through to the bone. I'm interested in the way a person looks or presents themselves to the world; it's how they become even after they've gone. That's the memory, that's what's engraved in people.

Tell me about your religious upbringing.
I had quite a mixed background: on my father's side, his family were Indian Hindu, and my mother's are Catholic. We went to Catholic church and, as we got older, we went to Baptist church, so I've had quite a lot of input. I suppose—like anyone, when you're a teenager—you reject a lot of those things, and then as you get older you reconfigure. I've always found a lot of inspiration in the Bible. A lot of the stories in there are more controversial than anything you see on HBO. Biblical stories are really quite outrageous, so I'm quite attracted to that and this idea of sacrifice and testifying.

When did you start thinking about the 3D printer as a kind of mouthpiece for the human spirit?
For the first couple of years [of my PhD], I've been studying digital capture and digital output, so, like, scanning and printing and stuff like that. The project is related to theology and the digital body, and how theological ideas could be understood or explored with digital technology. For me, religion and technology are different sides of the same coin, and there's always been quite a strong relationship between them. 

I was interested in the way, in 3D digital capture, you take a physical object from one plane and output it as another physical object. It made me think a lot about ideas of the trinity. I'm talking about the Trinity in Catholicism. Some people think the Father begot the son, others that he begot the Holy Ghost, but they have equal power. It has to do with this eternal triangle: that they all have begot each other. The problems of Christianity are based on this. These tiny little parts are the things that broke up the church hundreds of years ago into the Eastern and Western church. I'm interested in the idea of the artist as a figure who somehow uses his abilities to shed light on something, to make people think about them and then make up their own ideas. 

Thanks, Lee.

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