Artist Lee Wagstaff is renown for employing the human body as a focus-point. By using his own body as both the subject and object of his art work, his conceptual pieces have become a controversial method of self-representation and instantaneously, an instrument of his interiority particularly in spirituality.
His previous works explore a similar approach, a particularly distinctive project “Shroud” gained the attention of musician David Bowie, who described the piece as “disquietingly heroic.” “Shroud” presents itself as a life-size photographic negative image of the artist’s body printed in his own blood on linen resembling the Shroud of Turin.
His latest project, entitled “The Last Adam” as exclusively revealed to After Nyne, seeks to explore the strained relationship the artist had with his father prior to his death. After recently coming into possession of his late father’s skull, Lee Wagstaff met with Arts Editor Luciana Garbarni for an uncapped, intimate discussion, giving an insight to the inspiration behind his plans to crush the skull, and use the remains to recreate a replica of his own skull. What follows is an insight into a truly original mind.
Lee, I’m compelled to ask you this question first, because the concept fascinates me – what was the first point of inspiration in using your father’s skull to create a conceptual piece of art?
Like many Christians I am intrigued by the ideas of hypostasis and consubstantiality, the complex relationships between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and wondered how I could explore this through the production of an art object. There is a long tradition of skulls in Christian art, it is often seen at the base of the cross in crucifixion scenes and represents Adam the first man and the father of all men through the Flesh.
The skull is a symbol of obedience and the inheritance of sin like the relationship between a father and a son. I want to recreate something that already exists to transfigure its physical structure but not its essence. I am interested in creating new relics that are imbued not with the power of saints but the impotence of sinners as a testament to the fallen and lowly I had been researching recent advances in 3D scanning, 3D modelling and 3D printing in relation to theology and noticed that these three states of being echo that of the Holy Trinity.
With these technologies there is a transference of an idea or object from a physical state to a virtual state and then back into the physical. I had also been studying how the medieval church adopted the science of optics and perspective to literally place man at the centre of Gods vision, being constantly observed and judged. Over the last twenty years or so visual digital devices have altered the human perceptual field and how we experience the physical and emotional/spiritual world placing the individual at the centre of their own virtual world begging to be observed and judged or ´liked`.
So it seems natural that new technologies could also be an aid to theology. In my research I came across some very interesting work being carried out in the fields of medicine and engineering. Some of the advances in technology are progressing towards the realization of science fiction fantasies and beyond towards the demystification of the super natural. At Imperial College London they work with culturing human bone cells onto 3d printed scaffolds and at the Centre for Fine Print Research in Bristol they have experimented with using different powders in 3D printers to form durable ceramics, so I wondered if there was a way of combining the two techniques to somehow aid the act of (re) creation.
It’s noted that one of the aims behind this project was to explore the difficult relationship you had with your father. Do you also see this endeavour as a form of closure?
As I grow older I realise that closure is never really possible when both parties are unable to communicate directly, there is a weird comfort in non-resolution it pushes me forward. I cannot change what has happened but I can focus on the positive parts of our relationship. By working with the skull I am still close, as a keepsake its not so different from a pocket watch or a lock of hair. I would say this project in part is a meditation on life and without sounding too morbid a kind of preparation for death.
I think like many non medical people it is easier for us to deny the physical realities of death to literally put it in a box and at a distance. I am interested in the Aghori, the ascetic sadhus found in Hindu charnel grounds in India. They have a unique relationship to death and bodily functions and how to relate to the world, they often engage in post-mortem rituals covering themselves in cremation ashes and fashioning bowls from skulls. They believe that everything that exists is perfect (flesh, bones, excrement) and to deny this is to deny the sacredness of all life in its full manifestation.
How does your religious upbringing incorporate itself into this particular artistic pursuit?
I was initially raised as Catholic and spent some time in Baptist worship in my teenage years, with some influences of Hinduism from my fathers family so I had a varied experience. What I find so interesting in the english Christianity of my youth is the disparate relationship between the extreme physicality portrayed in the gospels such as the suffering of Christ to the removed rituals of institutional worship. I always imagined that real faith should involve extremes like snake handling or self flagellation. With this project and all previous projects I endeavor to find a more physical experience on my christian journey and to express a personal intertextual reading of scripture. Although I shy away from institutional worship my work in essence aims to be evangelical.
Tell me about the process involved in recreating his skull into a replica of your own.
To create an accurate model of my own skull I must first have a CT scan of my head and then convert the data from the scan into a workable 3d digital model (an .stl file) this model will be ´engraved` digitally with the tattoo designs from my own head and then the model will be printed. There are two possibilities as to how the final piece will be made; one is to crush my fathers skull into a powder that could be mixed with a binder and 3d printed or to print a mother mold from some other material. From this mold I could cast the new skull from a paste made from the skull powder.
Technicalities aside, the process is frighteningly intimate, one could interpret it as similar to embarking on a spiritual journey, would you agree?
You are right it is an intimate project not just physically but emotionally. Until recently this was a very insular journey for me but since the publicity from the Vice interview it has become something else, somewhat exposed. Interestingly I have had a lot of support especially from scientists who are fascinated by the project. I am quite shy so it is a wonderful experience to connect with so many people.
However, I think the wider research project, my Phd is the bigger personal spiritual journey, I am not a theologian so to attempt such an undertaking as proposing a `Theology of the Digital Body` – the subject of my thesis, is the real struggle and this will take many years. The artistic projects are the easy part, working with materials and techniques to express ideas concepts in a physical form. The difficult part is to consume and get to grips with the philosophical, intellectual and spiritual complexities relevant to my research.
In any spiritual journey, the individual finds themselves dissecting fragments their most inner-selves to discover something new. Have you discovered anything new about yourself or your relationship with your father in this venture?
Regrets of course and that you can spend so much time trying to relive and understand the past that there is no time to participate in the now. I also realize that I am very similar to my father and have inherited many of his traits. It took him a long time to achieve his goals in life and he only had a short time to enjoy them. Being an artist can be a selfish remote journey but I have realized how important it is to stay focused and to trust my instincts and not to compromise and to stay true to my inspiration as it is a gift from God and should be cherished.
Have you given any thought to what you might title this piece?
The Last Adam
This isn’t the first time you have used the human body as a focus point. What are some of the complications involved in using your own body as both the subject and object of your art work?
I have always found it easy and rewarding to use my own body as a site for experiment and exhibition. It becomes complicated when the work leaves the studio and assumes a different context, sometimes there is a giant leap from an idea to its realization and it is strange to be talking now about a project that is still in development, but it is also exciting. All art is some form of request for communication with others, in my daily life I am not very sociable but through art and the internet I have found a way to interact with and be part of the wider world.
What do you anticipate the public response to be once the completed piece is unveiled?
It had never intended the piece to be unveiled in the ostentatious fashion that people might anticipate. It will form part of a wider exhibition that compliments the written component of my Doctoral studies. I hope people have a positive experience of the work in context to the other pieces I will exhibit and the written thesis.
There will always be people who react negatively without considering the bigger picture or it is not to their taste and that’s fine and then there are those who are sensitive and open to what I do. I don´t think my work is for everyone but I have noticed from recent exhibitions that children like what I do. Maybe it is because its quite literal what I do and they can just experience it for what it is from what they see in front of them.
A concept of this kind is profoundly personal. What do you have to say to audiences who may be hesitant to engage themselves or for asking the “wrong” question or feeling like they’re intruding?
All artists the moment they release their creativity to the world through an exhibition or even via the internet invite participation and conversations. There are no wrong questions, I have initiated a dialogue so I must do my best to accommodate all reactions. Nick Cave in his lecture ´The word made flesh` talks about the the creative imaginations power to combat all enemies and that ´we are protected by the flow of our own imagination`.
I have always felt protected and believe that the role of the artist is to disrupt culture and to try to push past the mundane even if they fail. I make work to satisfy my own creative urge as a way to understand Gods relationship with me.