Photo: Pekko Vasantola.

Pekko Vasantola An Attempt to Keep My Friends Alive – Cell Sculptures


An attempt to keep my friends alive: cell sculptures is an exhibition featuring a series of living biosculptures. The material of the works is artificial tissue made of cells of my friends and family members. The works are not traditional portraits representing the subject by their looks, but portraits focusing on the materiality of their subjects. The portrayed people are used as material themselves.

I collected the cells of my friends approximately three weeks before the exhibition using a non-invasive method, scraping the epithelial cells from their cheeks. After culturing the cells in the laboratory, I combined them with extra cellular matrix mimicking hydrogel ­– to form artificial tissue. This tissue, made of each depicted person, will be alive and growing for the duration of the exhibition.

The shape of the works is derived from 3D scans of facial features of portrayed people. These scans are combined with shapes and deformations typical to 3D software and then bioprinted into sculptures. The sculptures consist of a covering shell made of biocompatible medical silicone filled with the living artificial tissue. They are a combination of digital and biological fabrication.

The sculptures live in incubators made of blown and casted glass. The incubator tries to mimic the condition of the human body by keeping the temperature at constant 37 degrees and circulating nutrients for the cells.

A single cell’s diameter is less than 20 µm, undetectable with naked eye. Each sculpture contains approximately 4-5 million cells. DNA, our genetic instructions, can be found within each of these cells. These works are little, detached and artificially grown pieces of my friends, but they are also potential sources of biological, personal data.

As human body and behavior are rendered into data, put into measurable format – into modifiable format – we are confronted with important ethical considerations. Will DNA data become just one more branch of personal data collection practiced by big tech companies? How is our identity shaped by the possibility of editing the very recipe of our bodies? And crucially, who has access to these biotechnologies such as gene editing and personalized medicine? The sixth work of the exhibition, the granite sculpture, presents a personal trait analysis of my partner based on her DNA, concluded by a private company.

While working with this exhibition I was thinking a lot about friendship – and death. When my friend Iitu died three years ago due to cancer, I faced a fear of losing people close to me. Now, on a small scale, for a short while, I’m attempting to keep my friends alive. Iitu’s portrait is made without cells.

I would like to thank Brinter Oy for the collaboration and for letting me use a bioprinter manufactured by them. I would also like to thank the Arts Promotion Center and Kunstventures Oy for supporting my work.

​Pekko Vasantola (b. 1994) is a visual artist based in Helsinki, Finland. Common themes in his work include personal data, new technologies, and portraiture. Mediums he uses range from granite sculptures to AI software to cell culturing, and bioprinting. He graduated from Turku Arts Academy in 2019. Currently, he is finalizing his studies from Aalto University’s Master Program in Visual Cultures, Curating and Contemporary Art. Vasantola’s works have been shown in several exhibitions in Finland and abroad, including When is Now? exhibition in Wäinö Aaltonen Museum of Art and Young Artists 2019 exhibition in Helsinki Kunsthalle.

Photo: Aukusti Heinonen.
Photo: Aukusti Heinonen.

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