A human skin handbag is not fashion – it's a crime

Should art ever be made from human skin? It used to be serial killers like Ed Gein, the real life model for Alfred Hitchcock’s Norman Bates, who made themselves skin trophies. Today, there are more legitimate ways of getting hold of human skin to make art. Instead of murdering and skinning people, you can grow an epidermis in a lab. But is the resulting art any less creepy?

In this year’s Central St Martins degree show, Tina Gorjanc is showcasing a proposal to create handbags and other designer accessories from the skin of the celebrated couture designer Alexander McQueen, who died in 2010. Gorjanc has filed a patent for the method that would grow cell cultures from his DNA, extract skin cells, and tan the resulting remake of McQueen’s skin into leather for luxury goods.

Wow. And yet this is not the first attempt to grow celebrity flesh in the name of art. Italian artist Diemut Strebe has already regrown a living “clone” of Van Gogh’s ear with DNA obtained from a member of the Van Gogh family.

‘Tattooed jacket’ by Tina Gorjanc.

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Scientists who have commented on Gorjanc’s idea say it is theoretically possible – although it would be difficult to produce enough McQueen skin to make a full accessories line. Are we entering the era of cloned celebrity art and sculptures, not to mention clothes, made with people’s skin? And if so, what are the ethics of this?

Way back in the 1990s, art already seemed poised to enter the realm of the dead. After Damien Hirst won the 1995 Turner prize for his vitrines containing the bisected bodies of a mother cow and her calf, where could he go next? Was he about to put a human body on view? In the event, he never stepped over that line. He just sank more animals into tanks of formaldehyde in ever sillier ways. Instead it was Gunther von Hagens, inventor of “plastination”, who got people queuing up to see dead people posed as sculptures, their anatomies eerily revealed.

The idea of making art with human bodies disturbs me – with its self-evident degradation of our respect for each other. Of course, there’s a long history of anatomical science toeing that fine line. Old science collections are full of such gothic delights as preserved human arteries and flayed bodies. Some Catholic churches preserve pickled body parts of saints. But art, since the Renaissance, has been about the worship of the human.

As the physicist Richard Feynman once observed: “The artists of the Renaissance said that man’s first concern should be for man.” Leonardo da Vinci carried out some of the greatest scientific dissections in history, but never dreamt of exhibiting those bodies. Instead, he drew his discoveries with a tender precision that is both scientifically informative and compassionate. Rembrandt, too, painted the interior of the human body exposed by anatomy – with profound compassion.

It is natural for artists to be fascinated by the human body because that’s where we live – in this fleshy machine. Yet Leonardo and Rembrandt offer imaginative, and above all humane, visions of our bodily existence. Art is drawn to the flesh but does not possess it. That’s why Hirst never did pickle his granny. A shark in a tank is an image, but a human body in a tank is a crime, or should be, even if it has been grown in a lab.

I suspect Tina Gorjanc knows this. Her proposal to grow McQueen’s skin and make it into leather sounds like, you know, a joke. A joke about fashion and the macabre.

Still, she really has taken out a patent. We live on the edge of science fiction. Who knows, in 10 years’ time there may be skin art everywhere. Instead of Titian’s painting of the Flaying of Marsyas, imagine vast abstract works made from human skin. Old man Hirst will be grumping about it, saying it isn’t right. And every oligarch in Russia will be waiting to get his skin on the wall.

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