Helen Pynor, ‘Habitation’, 2021, Unglazed bone china (made from the artist’s bone removed during surgery, supplemented by animal bone), unglazed earthenware, coral, felt, metal, acrylic, archival pigment prints and lightboxes, dimensions variable. Photographed by Helen Pynor. Image courtesy of the artist, Experimenta, and City of Joondalup Art Collection.
Habitation is a major new series commissioned for the Experimenta Life Forms International Triennial of Media Art, which opened in Hobart in April this year and will tour 10 regional galleries nationally over 2021-2023. City of Joondalup, Perth are a co-commissioner of the work.
The work was prompted by Pynor’s recent hip replacement surgery, required due to a congenital hip abnormality. It explores the transformation of the body through different states, the body’s adaptation to change, and the breakdown of the animate-inanimate boundary due to the widespread use of prosthetics.
Navigating medical prohibitions, Pynor gained permission to keep the bone material removed from her body during surgery, raising important questions about ownership and personal agency over the tissues removed from our bodies, and what happens to them after removal.
To honour the symbolic, historic, emotional and spiritual meanings embedded in her excised bone, Pynor used her bone material to make a bone china replica of her excised femur head. In the gallery this is placed alongside earthenware pelvis and femur bones, the bones that remain in her body. The bone shapes were modelled from 3D CT scan data of her pelvis and femur bones, taken just prior to surgery.
Bone china clay contains up to 50% animal bone. To produce her bone china work, Pynor heated her bone to 1000 degrees Celsius in a ceramics kiln, which burnt off the soft tissue and left only the mineral content of her bone, mainly calcium alongside iron and mineral trace elements. This transformation produces the calcium that affords bone china its strength, whiteness and delicacy, and it makes manifest our ‘mineral’ natures. Pynor was inspired by Polish philosopher Monika Bakke who coined the term ‘lithic intimacies – life’s diverse, intimate relationships of exchange and inter-species companionship with minerals’.
In Habitation Pynor seeks to challenge perceptions of the body as a passive recipient of human-engineered implants. Pynor’s titanium and ceramic hip implant is ‘cementless,’ meaning no adhesives are used to attach the implant to her bone. Rather, her prosthesis has a hydroxyapatite coating that stimulates her own bone cells to grow into fissures in the coating, a dynamic and ongoing process that will hold her implant in place for decades.
In Pynor’s sculpture, coral forms are attached to the sites where Pynor’s prosthesis is embedded in her bones. The intimate relationships of exchange that take place in coral, between soft-bodied organisms and their calciferous structures, offers an analogy to the osteo-integration of human bone cells into the mineral structure of prostheses.
Pynor is interested in the molecular exchanges that take place between living bone and prosthetic surfaces at the dynamic interface where they meet, and the ensuing breakdown of the animate-inanimate boundary. In a future development of Habitation she will re-stage this dynamic exchange in the lab, during a residency at SymbioticA, The University of Western Australia, where she will grow living bone cells on samples of her prosthesis coating, and use microscopy to image this cellular integration.
Adjacent to the ceramic works in the gallery, lightbox images reference the absent bone and the transformational processes following surgery. The imagery is drawn from Pynor’s archive of CT scans and X-rays, which trace her bone’s dynamic adaptation to change over the course of her life.
Habitation, a 2020 Experimenta Commission.
This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body; Sydney College of the Arts, The University of Sydney; and Corin Group.
Capacity has been supported by City of Joondalup, Western Australia.
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