29 Aug 2016

Studying Billy Apple's soiled tissues from 1974

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 1:33 pm on 29 August 2016

When Billy Apple's exhibition Body Activities opened at London's Serpentine Gallery in 1974, it caused so much controversy that authorities were ordered to close it.

Billy Apple

Billy Apple Photo: Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

Why? Because the work was made of tissues covered in the artist’s own bodily fluids and excrement.

When Apple dismantled the exhibition, instead of throwing the exhibits out, he carefully stored the samples.

And now, they are being used for scientific discovery.

Dr Justin O'Sullivan from the Auckland University-based Liggins Institute said the samples offered a valuable insight.

“These sorts of samples are a bit like gold dust.”

Apple has provided recent samples to allow a comparison to be made.

So what is science doing with the esteemed artist’s ancient wipings?

The researchers are taking the samples and extracting all the DNA out of them, and looking to see which bacteria are present in the samples 40 years ago, and which ones are present in the samples today.

“We’re able to test and see whether his flora has changed markedly between these two time points,” Dr O’Sullivan says.

He says bacteria are an interface between you and your environment and an interface between health and disease.

“By understanding these bacteria we can start to understand the development of some of the non-communicable disorders - insulin resistance or diabetes.

“It’s a really rapidly growing area of science.”


Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)