Friday, November 28, 2008
Peering into the vault, a single light reveals the chestnut heart suspended above the operating table of catalpa bean pods. The sewn catalpa bean pods form the top layer of the surgery table, while the chestnut heart awaits its transplant, swaying gently with the faint heartbeat of the room.
One Spadina’s vaults were created when it was used as a military hospital during WWI, and continue today to hold organ transplants for the Eye Bank of Canada. The vault is a place of storage and security for transplants. The vault offers protection and security: a sterile environment that can easily be cleaned, with a drain underneath the table, and hermetically sealed with the solid locking door.
Much like the vault, the heart is a container that protects the most precious aspects of human experience: memories, love and loss. The scroll hidden within the chestnut heart describes those protected memories, and the spiky exterior wards off potential harm. The heart is an organ for transplant, and will be given to another in hopes of giving life.
The idea of organ transplant, specifically the exchanging of hearts, exists in written form from 400 AD, when a Chinese physician Bian Que is credited with balancing the nature of two warriors by exchanging their hearts (and thus their intrinsic natures). The apparent interchangeability of organs today exists in tension between the idea of a human as an organic being in nature and a human as a mechanical system. Heart transplants place an individual heart in the context of a machine ‘cog’ that can be replaced by another heart. However, the heart is also a natural material, and carries a connotation of intrinsic nature that is inscribed on it by the person. My chestnut heart has been extracted from the original body, but carries within it a scroll written with the previous owner’s memories and loves. The mythology of an organ having an individual’s nature permanently attached to it has lasted from Chinese mythology over a thousand years ago to pop culture references such as The Simpson’s, with Homer undergoing a hair transplant one Halloween that carries with it the previous owner’s murderous nature. The heart transplant is not a dead organ. It is a living entity that must be carefully protected and kept alive until it is transplanted into the next human body. However, the life of the heart must be maintained. When the heartbeat ceases and decay sets in, a heart can no longer be used. However faint, the chestnut heart still has a heartbeat that can be heard.
The ‘natural’ chestnut heart not only carries an intrinsic nature of the individual it was from, but also carries a foreign nature to the body it is being transplanted into. Just as the heart is a foreign object being introduced into a natural system, the chestnut shells that form the heart are a foreign European transplant in contrast to the Native Catalpa tree bean pods. The sweet European chestnut trees were transplanted into North America after blight destroyed the native chestnut lineage. The chestnut tree transplant has been successful, and shows no sign of rejection. A heart is not merely a piece of a mechanical system that is interchangeable. Instead, a heart is a culturally constructed place of memory that cannot be forgotten, and is particular to one individual. However, just as foreign plants can be successfully introduced into a native environment, hearts also can be transplanted and become natural to a new person.
Shown from Dec. 2-7, 2008 at "The Eyeball", 1 Spadina Crescent.