Bigert & Bergström — Prosthesis
In primary school in the early 1970s, we learned that the northern white rhino – then quite numerous – was threatened by increasing poaching. Rhino horns were thought to have magical powers for male virility, and they were sold on the black market, mainly to Asia. Despite the discovery of sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra, which was approved for treatment of erectile dysfunction in 1998, rhinos continued to be slaughtered for their coveted horns. Twenty years later, in spring 2018, the last male northern white rhino in the wild died. Sudan, as he was called, had been surrounded by armed guards round-the-clock for three years to protect him from poachers. When at last he was put down after months of failing health, he left behind his daughter Najin and granddaughter Fatu, the last two females of the species.
Today the northern white rhino has been joined by a number of other animals and organisms suffering from the “anthro-obscene” forces we humans have set in motion. We are now talking about the sixth mass extinction, which threatens to leave us alone with our beloved dogs and cats in a future consisting of small islands of urbanity in a largely submerged world. According to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), up to 1 million of the Earth’s 8 million species are threatened with extinction.
Our sculpture Prosthesis is a cast of a horn from a northern white rhino, preserved at the Swedish Museum of Natural History. It was originally made for our Climate Chambers project in 1994, where the Steam Chamber housed a rhino. Mutated into a machine, it pumps out steam through various orifices in its body, creating a tropical climate. But, as the rhino’s body is made of iron, it is gradually consumed by rust.
In the centre of the gallery space, nothing but the polished horn remains. The shining metal represents both progress and loss – technological gains and extinguished lives. During an experiment in 1952, Doctor Pär-Ingvar Brånemark discovered by chance that living bone tissue didn’t reject titanium. He had built a titanium window in the bone of a live rabbit to observe what happened inside it. A macabre image of how human curiosity leads to new, unexpected discoveries that benefit life itself.
Animals have long served as stand-ins for humans in medical trials, like prostheses for our own phantom pain. And ironically, such experiments have now led to a glimmer of hope for the northern white rhino’s resurrection. Just recently, we read that seven eggs from the two surviving females, Najin and Fatu, have been fertilized in a laboratory in Italy, which had frozen samples of sperm from other, now deceased, male white rhinos. The question remains which southern white rhino females will serve as surrogates for the biological mothers who cannot carry the foetuses themselves.
We have previously proposed that monuments should be erected to commemorate endangered natural phenomena like glaciers. Prosthesis can be viewed as a further development of this reasoning, shining a spotlight on vulnerable parts of our common biological heritage – or as a critical action against the approaching Bio-Singularity.
Bigert & Bergström, September 2019
Photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger