Permanently preserved within glass tubes of chemicals are three vases that offer a startling portrait of what it means to be human in the 21st century. They are the products of human tissue engineering, an example of a future where we can redesign genetically identical versions of ourselves in previously unimaginable forms.
Developed for the La Fabrique du Vivant exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the work builds upon an earlier iteration, Semi-Human Vase (2014). The previously mechanical appearance has been streamlined in this version to sharpen the focus on the vases. They were made out of HeLa cells this time around through a close collaboration with biomedical engineering professor Dr. Patricia Dankers and her PhD candidate Dan Jing Wu at the Technology University Eindhoven. The choice of material is symbolic as these “immortal cells” were discovered in the 1950s and have contributed significantly to the development of modern medicine since. Today, HeLa cells are a widely used material in scientific research and to produce replacement body parts.
Each vase was created using a 3D-printed biodegradable polymer scaffold that was partially induced into human tissue. They were then stained blue with Coomassie protein dye, a commonly used colour in laboratories to give cells visibility. The resulting “Delft blue” appearance references a type of blue-and-white colour pottery produced in the Dutch city of Delft, which was inspired by Chinese porcelain — a subtle nod to the creator’s own Dutch-Chinese background.
Inspiring both awe and antipathy, these vases offer a romantic suggestion of what the sublime could look like in our 21st century. Just as civilisation was once fascinated with the grandeur of nature, the assembly line and then the atomic bomb, one of the obsessions of our current times is with the design of the human.
Semi-Human Delft Blue is the result of Yang’s continuing collaboration with Biomedical Engineering professor Dr Patricia Dankers and her PhD candidate Dan Jing Wu at Technology University Eindhoven.