The Body is a Big Place (interview with Peta Clancy)

Peta Clancy has investigated the intersection of art and biological processes for the past decade. Working predominantly with photography and more recently bio-art, sculpture, installation, and video, she has undertaken an in-depth analysis of the skin as a porous membrane. In this exclusive interview she discusses, from her own perspective, ‘The Body is a Big Place’, a collaborative installation work by herself and Helen Pynor, exploring organ transplantation and the ambiguous thresholds between life and death.

Interview Questions from Vasia Hatzi (MEDinART) and Richard Bright (Interalia Magazine)

Peta Clancy: ‘Visible Human Bodies’ (VHB) 2005. Installation view Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, UK. Duratran, Perspex, fluorescent lights 80cm diameter (each image) Photography Credit Phillip Carr Image courtesy of the artist

Peta Clancy: ‘Visible Human Bodies’ (VHB) 2005. Installation view
Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, UK. Duratran, Perspex, fluorescent lights 80cm diameter (each image)
Photography Credit Phillip Carr
Image courtesy of the artist

Please tell us about your background.

Peta Clancy: I am a lecturer and researcher in the Faculty of Art Design & Architecture at Monash University in Melbourne, where I completed a practice based PhD in 2009. Throughout my art practice I have explored the surface of the body as a porous membrane. I’m interested in the permeability of the skin and other membranes such as the gut lining. In an earlier series ‘Visible Human Bodies’ (2007), working in a Cell and Gene Therapy Laboratory as artist in residence, I worked with living bacteria to create live drawings of the body. I was interested in the idea that our bodies are host to millions of microbes and bacteria, and that the body and self does not end at the skin but is deeply interconnected with the world. That our skin is a porous membrane that lets all sorts of things pass in and out. I’m interested in how this sense of porosity may affect our sense of identity and corporeality. Rather than thinking of our bodies and selves as separate identities, hermetically sealed from the world, I feel a sense that the world is in me as I am in the world.

Peta Clancy: ‘Visible Human Bodies’ (VHB), detail, 2005. 80cm diameter Image courtesy of the artist

Peta Clancy: ‘Visible Human Bodies’ (VHB), detail, 2005. 80cm diameter
Image courtesy of the artist

It was this interest in the notion of the porosity of bodily boundaries that drew me to exploring organ transplantation for ‘The Body is a Big Place’ project. Throughout my practice I have collaborated with other artists as a way to challenge and broaden my practice, and to achieve things I could not do on my own. I recently collaborated with Helen Pynor on ‘The Body is Big Place’ project. From working on the project I became more aware of how my body may interconnect with other bodies and it also challenged my understanding of the liminal space between life and death.

‘The Body is a Big Place’ was extremely well received and we were offered opportunities to exhibit the project both nationally and internationally. The initial showing of the work was at Performance Space in Sydney in 2011 (Performance Space, initiated by the curator of the project Bec Dean, originally commissioned us to develop and realise the project). We were subsequently invited to exhibit the project internationally at Galerija Kapelica in Slovenia (2013);.the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts (2013); the National Centre for Contemporary Art, Baltic Branch, in Russia (2013); at Science Gallery Dublin (2013); and OK Center for Contemporary Art as official exhibit for the 2012 Ars Electronica, festival in Austria. We have also exhibited the project in Australia at Powerhouse Museum, Sydney (2013) and Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery (2012). In 2012 we were awarded an Honorary Mention in the Prix Ars Electronica in Austria and an Australian Network for Art and Technology, Synapse Art/Science Residency Grant to participate in a four-month residency in the Heart and Lung Transplant Unit at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney where we worked under the mentorship of Kumud Dhital.

Throughout my art practice I’ve worked on long-term projects, exploring video and photography, as well as installation and sculpture. Currently I engaging with the expanded field of photography through my practice. When I went to art school in my early twenties I majored in photography. As this was before the time of digital imaging I learnt through analogue processes and there was a sense of uniqueness associated with photographic images and prints. A great deal has changed since I trained at art school. Now everyone takes photographs. With IPhones and social media photography is a huge part of our everyday lives. Photographs are ubiquitous. Most people know how to create aesthetically pleasing images. I don’t find this daunting. I find it inspiring because I feel it pushes me to be even more inventive and conceptual with the medium. Photographs are like language because they are found everywhere. We communicate with words, yet not everyone is a writer. I think of photography in the same way. In my most recent work I have been interested in activating the materiality of the photographic medium by exploring photographs in terms of what the image content depicts as well as three-dimensional objects that exist in space and time. I am currently working on a project exploring my Aboriginal ancestry through an investigation of threatened Australian moths and butterflies and the sites where settler massacres of Aboriginal people occurred in the landscape in Victoria during the 18th century. The project explores the themes of dislocation, belonging, loss, erasure, recovery, absence and presence in relation to the Australian landscape.

The Body is a Big Place Helen Pynor and Peta Clancy 2011 5-channel video projection, heart perfusion device and live performance, single-channel video on monitor, soundscape by Gail Priest. Exhibited at Performance Space, Sydney  Photo: Geordie Cargill  Image courtesy the artists

The Body is a Big Place
Helen Pynor and Peta Clancy
2011
5-channel video projection, heart perfusion device and live performance, single-channel video on monitor, soundscape by Gail Priest.
Exhibited at Performance Space, Sydney
Photo: Geordie Cargill
Image courtesy the artists

Could you describe the collaborative work/installation entitled “The Body is a Big Place”?

PC: ‘The Body is a Big Place’ installation incorporated live (biological) art, a 5-channel video projection and soundscape. Performers in the video work were all individuals who have had experiences of organ transplantation. The installation included a fully functioning heart perfusion device which was used to reanimate to a beating state a pair of pig hearts during live performances. During the pig heart performances we were interested in whether the experience of witnessing a heart beating outside the body would induce empathic responses in the viewers. That is would the viewer identify with the heart they were witnessing, would this alter their own sense of interiority by deepening a connection with their own heart or internal organs? Reanimating the pig hearts was achieved by harnessing the potential of the bodily material. After obtaining the hearts from the abattoir, we travelled to the gallery space where we hooked the hearts up to the perfusion system to emulate the conditions inside the body (that is to provide the appropriate nutrients, the required temperature, fluids and gasses). Once the hearts were maintained to the conditions emulating the inside the body they began to do what they do, that is to beat. This was an uncanny, miraculous, and at times horrifying process to witness.

The Body is a Big Place Helen Pynor and Peta Clancy 2011 5-channel video projection, heart perfusion device and live performance, single-channel video on monitor, soundscape by Gail Priest. Exhibited at Performance Space, Sydney  Photo: Peta Clancy and Helen Pynor  Image courtesy the artists

The Body is a Big Place
Helen Pynor and Peta Clancy
2011
5-channel video projection, heart perfusion device and live performance, single-channel video on monitor, soundscape by Gail Priest.
Exhibited at Performance Space, Sydney
Photo: Peta Clancy and Helen Pynor
Image courtesy the artists

The Body is a Big Place Helen Pynor and Peta Clancy 2011 5-channel video projection, heart perfusion device and live performance, single-channel video on monitor, soundscape by Gail Priest. Still from live pig heart performance, 21 Nov, 2011, Performance Space, Sydney. Photo: Geordie Cargill Image courtesy the artists

The Body is a Big Place
Helen Pynor and Peta Clancy
2011
5-channel video projection, heart perfusion device and live performance, single-channel video on monitor, soundscape by Gail Priest.
Still from live pig heart performance, 21 Nov, 2011, Performance Space, Sydney.
Photo: Geordie Cargill
Image courtesy the artists

The Body is a Big Place, Science Gallery Dublin Helen Pynor and Peta Clancy 2013 Heart perfusion device and live performance, single-channel video on monitor, soundscape by Gail Priest. Exhibited at Science Gallery Dublin  Performance still Photo: Freddie Stevens Image courtesy the artists and Science Gallery Dublin

The Body is a Big Place, Science Gallery Dublin
Helen Pynor and Peta Clancy
2013
Heart perfusion device and live performance, single-channel video on monitor, soundscape by Gail Priest.
Exhibited at Science Gallery Dublin
Performance still
Photo: Freddie Stevens
Image courtesy the artists and Science Gallery Dublin.

The Body is a Big Place, Galerija Kapelica, Ljubljana Helen Pynor and Peta Clancy 2013 3-channel video projection, heart perfusion device and live performance, single-channel video on monitor, soundscape by Gail Priest. Exhibited at Galerija Kapelica, Ljubljana  Performance still Photo: Miha Fras  Image courtesy the artists

The Body is a Big Place, Galerija Kapelica, Ljubljana
Helen Pynor and Peta Clancy
2013
3-channel video projection, heart perfusion device and live performance, single-channel video on monitor, soundscape by Gail Priest.
Exhibited at Galerija Kapelica, Ljubljana
Performance still
Photo: Miha Fras
Image courtesy the artists

What questions did you want to address in this work that could not be addressed through medical science?

PC: Art is a powerful medium to explore philosophical and existential problems that medical science may not offer to broader audiences. For example in the case of organ transplantation, a life-threatening situation, time is critical and there is a lot of pressure on all those involved. Whereas in an art context by presenting the viewers with an opportunity to witness a beating heart outside the body, ‘The Body is a Big Place’ offered the audience with a space to reflect on their corporeality, their relationship with their own interior body and their attitudes to organ donation. For example during the performances, as the hearts transitioned from an inanimate to and animate state, and began to beat outside the body of the pig we anticipated that viewers would be perplexed by the idea of the ‘status’ of the heart. That is when the beating hearts were transplanted from the interior of the body of a sentient being to the interior of the gallery space and began to beat would they be considered as living entities? Through our installation we could explore these kinds of philosophical inquiries that are inherent to the organ transplant process.

You have collaborated a lot with scientists. As an artist, is it difficult to work with a scientist?

PC: The realisation of ‘The Body is a Big Place’ project involved working with a number of individuals including other artists, scientists, clinicians and members of the organ transplant community. My experience of working and collaborating with scientists for this project and others in the past has been incredibly productive and inspiring once I’ve found the individuals who have the inclination and the time to work with me. It has been a privilege to work with such generous, professional and experienced individuals. For example the opportunity to spend four months during an artist residency working alongside heart transplant surgeons and being present in the operating theatre during heart and lung transplant operations was an incredible experience. To undertake this kind of experiential research is incredibly formative and potentially life altering.

Do you think scientists and artists share any common communication path?

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