It looks like a fairy grotto and indeed some have christened it the “tooth fairy palace”. It’s actually a sculpture entitled “Palaces” and results from a collaboration between artist Gina Czarnecki and stem cell biologist Sarah Rankin. Stem cells are at the heart of the project and “Palaces” intends to challenge and educate people about the topic. The sculpture is two metres high and the same distance wide, and is constructed from clear crystal resin. The strands of resin reflect and refract light giving it a magical feel. The closer you look the more magical it gets but it also becomes slightly unsettling as you begin to recognise the many small human teeth glued to the resin.
Czarnecki first had the idea for a public artwork on stem cells when she attended a workshop on the topic given by Rankin. Teeth became the biological focus of the project for several reasons. Milk teeth are a source of stem cells which Czarnecki wanted at the heart of the project but they have other associations for her. She had been assailed by her daughter, then 7 years old, with questions about whether the Tooth Fairy was real or not, so a project that included milk teeth would also allow exploration of ideas about truth and illusion. Milk teeth are also symbols of transition and progress. All children lose milk teeth and this is a natural part of development not a symbol of decay. Different cultures deal with tooth loss in different ways but in the UK the Tooth Fairy myth is very popular. After the Tooth Fairy has called, many parents keep their children’s milk teeth. I am not quite sure why we do this; possibly it’s because they represent small fragments of our children. Whatever the explanation, milk teeth have significance above and beyond their purpose.
The tangible focus of “Palaces” is the resin sculpture decorated with milk teeth. The framework of the sculpture, consisting of the resin strands, is complete and about 5000 teeth donated by children have already been attached. Children are asked to donate one milk tooth. In return each child receives a token to put under their pillow. Apparently, the Tooth Fairy recognises these tokens and children do not miss out financially by donating. The target is 12000 teeth and, as they arrive, the teeth will be attached to the sculpture so that its coral-like nature can grow.
The project is designed to stimulate discussion around stem cells and it is here that Rankin wants to challenge people. For many, stem cells are derived solely from embryos. Rankin is keen to show that other tissues such as bone marrow, milk teeth and fat derived from liposuction are all potential sources of adult stem cells and not, as many people think, just clinical waste. The very fact that the sculpture is unsettling – those rows of small teeth that were once part of children are to me very unsettling – will I believe challenge people’s preconceptions.
Science communication is another important part of the project. Those who go to see the sculpture will be directly exposed to the project and its aims but there are other levels of engagement. Children who donate teeth will have a personal involvement in the project which can be backed up in schools by teaching resources offered on the web site. Younger children can learn about the relation of art and science especially if they participate by donation. For older children, more complex ideas about stem cells and about communicating science can be emphasised. Rankin hopes that the project will arouse interest in science: “This is using art not just to illustrate science, but also to catch people’s interest and get them to ask the questions.”
Alastair Upton, Chief Executive of Bluecoat Art Gallery in Liverpool expressed a different view on the project: “It’s beautiful and thought-provoking and then slightly disturbing. What we have here is art that is bringing us in to understand some of the work that science is doing and to make us think about the consequences of the by-products, literally and metaphorically that science has”
I have written recently about another art/science project, “Nowhereisland”, that I felt might not achieve its aims. “Palaces” seems much more likely to fulfil its potential. One reason for this is the equal involvement of an artist and a scientist in the planning and execution of the project. “Palaces” is also a clever project that can be appreciated on many levels, providing multiple layers of meaning and discussion.
“Palaces” is at the Bluecoat Art Gallery in Liverpool until February 2012, the Science Museum in London between April and June 2012, the Centre for the Cell, London between July and September 2012 and at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry between March and May 2013. The web site for “Palaces” is at http://palaces.org.uk/