Peta Clancy and Helen Pynor have been independently exploring the intersections between art and the life sciences for more than a decade and have been collaborating since 2010, working across installation, media art, video, sculpture, performance and photography. Their work has been exhibited extensively in museums, institutions and private galleries in Australia, Asia and Europe and developed during residencies in scientific and cultural institutions such as SymbioticA at the University of Western Australia, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Melbourne, Performance Space, The Children’s Hospital at Westmead in Sydney, and Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In 2012 their collaborative work The Body is a Big Place received an Honorary Mention in the Hybrid Arts category of Ars Electronica and was included in the ‘CyberArts’ exhibition in Linz, Austria. They are currently undertaking an extended residency in the Heart and Lung Transplant Unit at St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, researching their new work.
The Body is a Big Place is a large-scale, immersive installation developed through collaboration between artists, scientists and clinicians. The work explores organ transplantation and the ambiguous thresholds between life and death, revealing the process of death as an extended durational process, rather than an event that occurs in a single moment in time. The work’s title refers to the capacity for parts of the body to traverse vast geographic, temporal and interpersonal distances during organ transplantation processes. The project was underscored by risk and uncertainty, mirroring the uncertainties lying at the heart of organ transplantation itself. As part of the installation a fully functioning heart perfusion system is used to reanimate to a beating state a pair of fresh pig hearts during a live performance. Rather than sensationalising this performative event, the artists hope to encourage empathic responses from viewers, appealing to their somatic senses and fostering their identification with the hearts they are watching. This opens up the possibility of a deeper awareness and connection with viewers’ own interiors.
The performance makes apparent the heart’s status as a highly contractile and unusual oscillator. The heart has its own ‘mini’ oscillator; a bundle of nerve cells called the sinus node, which can initiate the heart’s muscular contractions independently of the central nervous system. This trait allows transplanted hearts to continue to beat for years without connection to the central nervous system, and the hearts in this performance to beat without external mechanical or electrical stimulation. The heart perfusion performance is accompanied by an underwater video sequence. Performers in this work are members of the organ transplant community in Melbourne, individuals who have traversed extraordinary experiences in the form of receiving, donating, or standing closely by loved ones as they receive or posthumously donate human organs.