Trust me,
I’m an Artist


In Heirloom, Gina Czarnecki grew skin portraits of her daughters from their own cells onto glass casts. In the process, she subverted the notion of the portrait representing a person not in paint or oils, but with their own biological material.

About the exhibition

In Heirloom, artist Gina Czarnecki and professor of clinical sciences John Hunt grew skin portraits of the artist’s daughters from their own cells, onto traditionally produced glass casts of their faces. The growing portraits were bathed in a liquid that fed them and prevented infection. When the cells reached the thickness of tissue paper they were removed, preserved, and displayed as framed portraits. Saskia and Lola have contributed to the work, specifically suggesting their faces being bathed in liquid as though swimming on their backs. They have understood the scientific processes and, as young women, have strong views about self-image in contemporary society.

The starting point of Heirloom was the idea of having your teenage face back in the future, and the methods developed could offer new possibilities for facial reconstruction and cosmetic modification. Along with Director of Face Lab, professor Caroline Wilkinson, Gina Czarnecki and John Hunt have also become interested in how these methods could be applied on a wider scale – if biobanks stored information about the 3D structure of the face along with youthful skin cells, could everyone have their own facial heirloom?

The exhibition at Medical Museion showed an artwork; an installation of living and preserved portraits. Alongside the skin portraits, visitors encountered laboratory equipment, face moulds, casts, and 3D scans that revealed the process of the artwork: a process that could also develop into future medical procedures or into DIY methods. The exhibition was also a snapshot of an ongoing collaboration – the technical methods will continue to evolve as the project is exhibited in Korea, Liverpool, and Amsterdam.

Heirloom complemented the exhibition The Body Collected at Medical Museion, which examines how scientists have collected bodily materials to gain medical knowledge. The exhibition concludes with biobanks of today, leading visitors on to the vision Heirloom offers of a ‘biobank’ of the future. Placing the two exhibitions alongside each other also invites us to compare how scientists and artists produce new insights from biological materials, and how cells are collected, cared for, and understood in these different worlds. The project also contributed to Medical Museion and the NNF Center for Basic Metabolic Research (CBMR)’s ongoing investigation of the capacity of art to reveal the processes of biomedicine, and the impact of hands-on experience.

Past events

On May 25th 2016, an ethics panel debated the ethical questions surrounding the making of the work, including issues of consent, parental relationships, and the growth of human cells in public spaces. They also discussed the ethical issues the work brings forth, elucidates, and challenges, including the regulation of DIY cell therapies, the ethics of access to personalised medicine, and the moral landscape surrounding the vision of a re-grown youthful appearance.

The panel included: Christina Wilson, Art Advisor and member of The Danish Council on Ethics; Morten Hillgaard Bülow, medical historian and philosopher; Ida Donkin, postdoctoral researcher in epigenetics at the NNF Center for Basic Metabolic Research and finalist in the PhD Cup 2016; and Jens Hauser, Paris and Copenhagen based media studies scholar and art curator. Karin Tybjerg from Medical Museion moderated.

In two hands-on workshops, Gina Czarnecki and scientist Dr. Rod Dillon, who collaborated on Gina’s Quarantine and Wasted Debates artworks, introduced basic techniques for gathering, growing, and caring for different kinds of cells. Participants encountered their own cells under microscopes, handled kombucha fungus “skin”, and discussed with Gina and Rod why artists and scientists might want to work together and the ethical issues they might face both in institutions and in DIY contexts. A curator from The Body Collected exhibition joined discussions about how cells are collected and stored in the different worlds of art, science, and museums.

Behind the exhibition

This project has involved many collaborators and partners – you can read more on the artist’s website.

In addition to the EU Creative Europe funding, this project has been supported by: Arts Council England; The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research (CBMR), University of Copenhagen; and Arbejdsmarkedets Feriefond.