June 7, 2014
Have A Word In Van Gogh’s Ear
You will have to be fast, but if you fancy having a quick word in the ear of Vincent van Gogh — the artist famous for supposedly cutting off his own ear — you might just want to zip over to Germany. A bizarre exhibit at the Center for Art and Media museum in Karlsrühe has got Vincent’s lopped-off listener in a glass case, waiting for you to talk to it, although what you might say is another matter. After all, what can you say to an ear that has been as dead as the head it came from for over 120 years? “How’s it going mate” won’t cut it, will it? I suppose you could jolly it along and tell it you love sunflowers and adored its owner’s paintings. But whatever you have in mind you only have until July 6th before the end of the exhibition — it’s sort of “ear today, gone tomorrow.” (Sorry)
I can hear readers asking how the creators did this and I guarantee some will also ask why. I know I did. The whole thing was conceived by artist Diemut Strebe — aided and abetted by a team of scientists. The original plan was to grow the ear from van Gogh’s own DNA which they hoped to obtain from an 1888 letter. They assumed that old Vincent had licked the letter to seal it, but it turned out the DNA was not his, so they fell back on plan B. They approached Lieuwe van Gogh, who is the great-great-grandson of Vincent’s long-suffering brother Theo. Lieuwe was definitely up for this one and happily donated his DNA. While not a perfect match, it seems Theo and Vincent share a Y chromosome and a 16th of their genes. That was good enough for Diemut and the ear growers. You might say it took a long time to get ear (sorry again), but using computer imagery of the shape of Vincent’s ear, they built up a replica from skin cells and “tissue engineered cartilage” by means of a 3D biometric printer. The actual thing itself was “grown” at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
The ear is stored in a glass case and is fed nutrients to keep it alive. It’s a combination of living cells, computer enhancement, and a bit of hocus pocus. Visitors can speak to the ear via a microphone outside the glass. What would be really cool would be an adjacent resurrected van Gogh mouth that could reply, but don’t expect that any time soon.
Where all this going, I’m not quite sure. The creators are seeking DNA from van Gogh’s female genetic line, so expect more of the same, but as yet there are no clues regarding the next organ destined for time travel. The ear is not staying in Germany — it’s going on tour and is expected to go on display in New York sometime in the Spring of 2015. It might have started with an ear, but I shudder to think of what might come next. Body parts of the long dead and famous — it may just get out of hand.