Why One New York Artist Is Putting Her Placenta On Display

Thanks to celebrity advocates like January Jones and Kourtney Kardashian, the idea of ingesting your placenta — ​a common practice in traditional Chinese medicine — has become a little more palatable. But, would you ever think of putting yours on display? British-born artist Zoë Buckman (who's married to David Schwimmer) has gone there. In her first solo exhibit, Present Life, Buckman works with the preserved placenta from the May 2011 birth of her daughter Cleo. There, amongst gorgeous imagery of floral bouquets and neon structures, is Buckman's discarded organ — framed and glowing on the wall of the Garis & Hahn gallery on Bowery. (Fun fact: The preservation process, which took place at the Institute for Plastination in Germany, also took around nine months.)
As the exhibit comes to a close, we caught up with Buckman to find out more about what inspired it. How did the idea behind Present Life come to be? Where did the name come from?
"The exhibit started out as an exploration of mortality versus permanence, but it then grew to encompass the subconscious as I delved deeper into where these ideas and concepts started for me. The title is plucked from a definition of the word 'time,' but it also has other meanings for me. It alludes to the idea that life is a gift (a present) and also that life is fleeting. It's for right now (the present), and we never know what is coming next, or how long we really have here." 
Why did you make the decision to preserve your placenta?
"I chose to preserve my placenta as way to make the fleeting journey when something living begins to decay permanent. I'm interested in the 'in-between' stages of our human experience: when life turns to death, night turns to day, a woman turns into a mother, and so on."

I read that during your pregnancy your placenta began to deplete, which can be very dangerous. How did you feel when you received that news?
"My initial reaction was one of relief, when I learned that it didn't expire on me totally and that my baby way okay. I was also in awe at the human body, and how complex it is."

What do you think the placenta signifies?
"For this work, the placenta is really a jumping-off point for an exploration of themes around time and mortality, fragility, and resilience. I believe it mirrors our journey as humans in that we come from nothing, have a limited time to do a job we're supposed to, and we then end up in some kind of trash bag."

There are many floral photographs on display as well. How do you explain the correlation between the placenta and the flower imagery
"When the placenta left my body, it was still doing its job, but it was reaching the end of its shelf life. I saw it as being in between life and death. When I started photographing the flowers, they were in that same stage. I would enjoy them in my home for a week and then take them to my studio to capture them when they had just started to turn and smell bad."
What is the strangest reaction you've received towards the exhibit?
"Most people are shocked by the fact that the placenta is real, and also by the size of it. I've been surprised by the sales inquiries I've had about the piece, as it's actually not for sale. I never imagined that anyone would want it. It's both flattering and surprising to me that people have expressed a desire to own [my placenta]."

How has your aesthetic changed (if at all) since you've become a mother?

"My artistic practice changed a lot when I became a mother. I felt I was entering a new and uncharted stage of my life, and so it makes sense to me in retrospect that I started to explore new disciplines and forms of expression to mirror that change. It was a very liberating and empowering time, and I felt more free artistically than I had before." Your work, in general, is very female-oriented. What do you think of the state of women in the art world today?
"I think about the current state of women in the art world a great deal and believe there is a lot of progress needed in regards to gender equality. I believe the same is true for all industries and professions here in the West. Sadly, if you look at the conditions of women on a global scale, it is an abundantly awful time to be a female. There is a lot of change needed, and we should go further with effecting that change here on our own shores."

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