16 April 2012
ByAppeared in BioNews 652
Science Museum, 165 Queen's Gate, South Kensington, London SW7 5HD, UK
A palace made out of children's teeth? It sounds like an idea taken straight from a horror story, and yet this is how Liverpool-based artist Gina Czarnecki hopes to raise awareness about stem cell research.
Palaces - a slightly misleading title, as it consists of only the one sculpture - is a joint venture between Czarnecki and Professor Sara Rankin, whose seminar inspired the project. It is displayed in the 'Who Am I?' gallery at the Science Museum, London.
Czarnecki was particularly fascinated by the many potential biomedical applications of stem cells, and intrigued by the idea that they can be found in parts of the body that are often considered surplus to requirements. Although famously isolated from embryos, Professor Rankin explained that stem cells are also found in 'fat from liposuction, umbilical cords, or indeed baby teeth'.
At first glance, the two metre high clear crystal resin structure is eerily beautiful - a fantastical melange of twisted tentacle-like towers and stalagmites. But a closer look reveals small colonies of glued-on milk teeth, forming coral-like structures. It is early days, but Czarnecki has launched an appeal for children around the world to donate their milk teeth to the artwork (with the tooth fairy rewarding the charitable donation, naturally). And so, Palaces should grow and evolve over time, not unlike a coral reef.
Upon first noticing the teeth, one is rather taken aback. There is something slightly morbid about seeing parts of the human body as part of such a dramatic structure, and more teeth will presumably increase the discomfort. However, as Czarnecki points out, milk teeth are unique as 'they are the only things that fall off your body as a sign of progress, not decay' - perhaps there is no need to be shocked?
And the exhibit is, after all, trying to address the question of recycling parts of the human body. Indeed, my natural reaction to the exhibit is exactly what the project is targeting - we need to get over our squeamishness in order to unlock the potential of stem cells. There are many parts of the body that have uses beyond their 'natural lives' - we have embraced organ transplants for example - so why not use milk teeth, or indeed undesired fat, as sources of stem cells?
And certainly the project should be praised for its engagement of children, who apparently respond very positively to the idea of donating their lost teeth to the 'tooth fairy's palace'. In my book, anything that gets children excited about science or art should be lauded.
Whether or not Palaces achieves Czarnecki's goal of invoking debate and awareness of stem cell research is debateable, but the art piece is definitely thought provoking, and an intriguing juxtaposition of beauty and horror. It will certainly be interesting to follow its evolution as more teeth are donated, and I very much hope it achieves its goal of increasing the public's understanding of stem cell research.
If you go to the Science Museum before 28 June, you should definitely swing by the 'Who Am I' gallery to see Palaces. But bear in mind that while it's a great project, it's just one statue - a small part of a much larger exhibition - and it's probably not worth going to the museum just to see it. But by all means send in your children's teeth!
More information on the project is available at: palaces.org.uk