Kate Godwin Is Sharing Her DNA For The Sake Of Art And I Love It

I have a Shelf of Oddities (yes, I capitalize it in my head) that contains a toy bust of a Black Barbie, a miniature black Frank Kozik Gipper Bust, a School House Rock soundtrack, a vintage Franc, a chunk of pyrite, a bag of semi-precious rocks (mostly also pyrite), a paper knife, the rubber-band detritus of having performed Lygia Clark’s “Estruturas Vivas,” pieces of a broken sonic screwdriver toy that held someone’s weed before I scavenged it from their garbage, a six-sided die that has no 1 or 6 but two 2’s and two 3’s, a small vial of gallium (a metal that melts at extraordinarily low temperatures), a tungsten drill bit, dozens of pins that I had to take off of my backpack before I started traveling, and — here’s the important one — several pieces of multi-colored, multi-flavored hard candy that I took from Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” and pocketed instead of eating, as theoretically one is intended to do.

“Portrait of Ross” is a pile of 176 pounds of a candy called Fruit Flashers that’s usually housed in the contemporary wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s 176 pounds because that’s the weight Ross Laycock, Gonzalez-Torres’ partner, was when he was healthy, before they both got AIDS. It’s a metaphor for Ross’s body, and viewers are supposed to take a piece of candy — by so doing, the body deteriorates.

There’s a lot going on there that I won’t get into here because it’d get very, very long, but what I’m interested in talking about here is the aspect of this work in which the viewer takes and consumes what is supposed to be a piece of a human body. It’s extremely intimate — intimate in a sort of analog of the way that Felix and Ross were intimate — and it’s extremely sentimental and human. It hearkens to transubstantiation (the process by which bread and wine are converted to the body and blood of Jesus in Catholic theology — though Gonzalez-Torres was an atheist) and the sacrament of the Eucharist, through which the faithful are spiritually sustained, and, more importantly, through which they enter the community of believers. Don’t worry, that’s as religious as this is going to get: It’s just interesting to me because of that moving idea that physical interaction between bodies, that touch, is so emotionally powerful to us, so crucial in feeling connected to other people.

I want to bring it up because EJ Dickson and Greg Seals from The Daily Dot met a woman in Union Square named Kate Godwin, who was giving away samples of her DNA for free as an ongoing art project.

“I’m giving out my DNA because it’s what we all do constantly,” she said as curious passersby milled around the booth. “We’re constantly shedding parts of ourselves; our skin, parts of our microbiome are spreading to other people. You could take this person’s DNA, or that person’s. I’m just packaging it in a different way.”

Godwin also uses bodily materials — like urine samples — to distill for ammonia for dyes.

When I took pieces of Ross, I kept them instead of eating them (most of them, anyway) because there’s an impulse that I have to think that this is really someone’s body; it’s at least symbolically someone’s body, and that having it shared is a tremendously vulnerable and human act. They’re a totem of that act, a totem of Felix and Ross being in love — just like how the rubber band mess is a totem of an experience I shared with strangers in New York right before I left for LaGuardia Airport, just like how the dismantled sonic screwdriver is a totem of someone’s weed habit, or how someone invented a reason to have an incompletely-numbered six-sided die, or how my mother grew up in South Dakota, where we visited and “mined for gold” — pyrite, “fool’s gold” — when I was a kid.

And I’m a person who’s fascinated by human detritus as well — and this is about to get gross, so feel free to skip ahead: I had a toenail that just died a few weeks ago while I was training for a marathon. The toe got infected, and I took actual glee in taking pictures of it, getting the infection to settle, and then watching the toenail turn purple as a scab formed where it had detached from the nail bed, die, and eventually become detached. The formation of human cells are powerfully interesting — the parallel lines in toenails, the bubbling texture of a scab, the river-and-tributary patterns on the epidermis. OK: I keep them — my nails, scabs, sloughed-off pieces of my skin — for a few days to see how the texture changes, put them in a little pile on my nightstand, meticulously break them apart, and then throw them away.

Gross, I know. Weird, I know. Humans are weird, maybe me more than the average person. But it wouldn’t gross me out to take someone else’s sloughings, is what I’m saying. I would take Kate Godwin’s nail clippings in their little baggie and keep them with Ross on my Shelf of Oddities and never touch them, because I’m my own body to examine, but I would want to treat the courage it takes for someone else to share something that innately, absolutely personal with me — a stranger — with respect.

I wouldn’t share pieces of myself; I don’t have the courage — not because I’m afraid of what would be done with my DNA, but because I feel like I’ve already had plenty of my body taken from me. Even if it’s toenail clippings. It’s like how toddlers start understanding that their poop is produced by their body and so it belongs to them, so they start getting protective of it and don’t want their diapers changed (yes, that’s extremely commonplace) — even the waste of our bodies is hard to give up.

So, I love it, is what I’m saying. The aim of many different movements of art in the last century has been to force the viewer to reckon with the work emotionally, and especially in the last few decades, it’s also been a challenge to the artist to reckon with the artwork, and the viewers, as well. That reckoning is the artwork. In this cultural moment, we’re being told to fear each other’s bodies because of Ebola; we’re having hard conversations about why our culture reviles people who sell access to their bodies; and so it’s brave not only to trust a stranger with your body, but to have faith enough in a person giving you part of their body to believe that they’re doing it as a kindness.

[Daily Dot]

[Image via Daily Dot]

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