Body art. Literally

An American sculptor's work made of human skin is coming to Britain. Andrew Johnson reports

Some will find it shocking, macabre, echoing the worst allegations of Nazi atrocities. An American artist has spent the past 20 years making sculptures out of human skin, and is to exhibit his work in public in the UK for the first time later this year.

Welcome to the world of Andrew Krasnow, who has tackled one of the great taboos in art. Günther von Hagens may have caused controversy with his Body Worlds exhibition of human corpses, but Krasnow goes a step further.

His works include human skin lampshades – a direct response to the belief that similar items made from the skin of Holocaust victims were found at Buchenwald concentration camp.

Using skins from white men who donated their bodies to medical science, he has created freak versions of mundane items including flags, boots and maps of America – in effect using skin like leather. His work, he says, is a commentary on human cruelty and America's ethics and morality.

The exhibition in London in July will include a new sculpture made out of the final piece of skin Krasnow obtained in a job lot 20 years ago – a defaced $10 bill, in keeping with his questioning of US values. It has been made especially for the GV Art gallery, which will host the exhibition.

Not surprisingly, the work attracts controversy. The only time it has been shown before in Britain, late last year, it was by appointment only. Now the gallery has been licensed by the UK's Human Tissue Authority to display a complete exhibition.

Krasnow's human-skin American flags were created just before the first Gulf War for the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, although they were never displayed after Republican politicians Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich denounced his work.

"The objective was to express my concerns about the war and that it would not be conducted in a way that was moral and ethical," he said. "Since that question wasn't permitted in a museum, the work became more complex, with all the inherent contradictions of what it means to be an American or, for that matter, to be human."

Gallery owner Robert Devcic said Krasnow uses only white skin because much of the suffering in the Americas has been caused by white people. "He uses skin to make the point that suffering is universal," he said. "It is tanned using the same process that you'd use for an animal skin."

Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of art history at Oxford University, said Krasnow was not trying to be sensationalist. "He has not overtly pushed the sense of spectacle or sensation, unlike, say, Damien Hirst," he said. "He is working with deep and disturbing resonances. As an artist, he is pretty much out there on his own."

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