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fish heads
Waste not, want not. The artist constructs whimsical scenes featuring IRL fish heads, before eating themCatherine Becker-Echivard

Up the ante with these radical art materials

From Presidents and porn to cow bone boomboxes, we select the art materials giving new meaning to the weird, the wonderful and the wrong

We humans are made of strange stuff. If we’re honest, DNA – the building block of life – looks a bit like plaited hair or some sort of colourful children’s play toy (no, we’re not getting confused with Nathan Sawaya’s lego art). But aren’t we actually carbon-based lifeforms? You know, that thing that makes up the diamonds worn on the fingers of the super rich, and at the same time the stuff that we put in pencils. It follows that artists, who aren’t exactly renowned for their conservative mindsets, use some rather bizarre things to create their art. Take Japanese sculptor Yayoi Kusama, for example, whose current exhibition on at London’s Victoria Miro gallery is dedicated to the artist’s iconic depiction of pumpkins. Making pumpkins as small your thumb to those that would dwarf any observer, Kusama has a strong personal identification with the orange vegetables, and has described her images of them as “self-portraiture.” Below, we explore some of our other favourite radical art materials.


In very nearly a case of nominal determinism, the Australian artist Boo Chapple made audio speakers out of cow bones. Since cow femurs have piezoelectric properties – materials that create an electrical charge, when pushed out of shape slightly – Chapple filled her project with televisions showing of cows mooing, allowing visitor to listen in with the use of a stethoscope. Mooving stuff.


38-year-old Parisian artist Catherine Becker-Echivard makes art from the part of a fish many often throw away: the head. Commenting on our industrialised consumer society, Becker-Echivard constructs whimsical scenes featuring actual fish heads placed on doll-like bodies, which she later eats. The artist recreates scenes such as the assembly lines of labourers, as well as surgeries, factories and TV interviews.


When visiting a fine bakery, you’ll often see “artisanal” as an adjective used, but “artistic” is a rarity. Yet Thai artist Kittiwat Unarrom bakes loaves of bread that evoke dismembered heads, torsos, hand, and feet. He uses the very corporeal process of bread creation to reflect on the process of life. Kittiwat explains: “I want to speak out about my religious beliefs and dough can say it all. Baking human parts can show the audience how transient bread, and life, is.”


Inspired by a memory of attacking an ant hill with his brother as a child, Chris Trueman used over 200,000 ants to create ‘Self-Portrait With Gun’. Creating this masterpiece wasn’t simple, however, because with old age the San Francisco artist supposedly now hated killing the creatures. Nonetheless, after taking a year long break, he ordered in batches from online. The art work that has had offers of over $35,000.


“Composed entirely of ideas, the work that the Museum of Non-Visible Art showcases remains unseen,” explains the successfully-funded Kickstarter campaign, organised by the New York conceptual art team Praxis (Brainard and Delia Carey). Infuriating or intriguing depending on your position, for buyers to not receive a tangible piece of art; merely, a written description of it. Serial provocateur James Franco got in on the act, selling one of his “non-visible” pieces for $10,000. Watch Franco and Praxis explain the project below.


Speaking of our “over-consumption of prescription drugs and our bodies’ dependency on these medications”, New York City-based artist Jean Shin makes visually-arresting sculptures from discarded pill bottles. Gathered from nursing homes, pharmacies and individuals’ medicine cabinet, Shin describes her pill-bottle works as like a group portrait, mapping our wild consumption.


Belgian artist Wim Delvoye never seems far away from controversy, and his ‘Art Farm’ project was no exception. In the early 1990s. Delvoye started tattooing the skin of dead pigs, but eventually he began to use live pigs as a canvas for Western iconography: Disney princesses, biker symbols, and even the Louis Vuitton monogram. He was interested in the idea that the pigs would “literally grow in value”.


Those of you who have ever had a pet snail will know that feeding it lettuce will turn its excrement green, while carrot will turn it orange. From this, Dutch designer Lieske Schreuder had a eureka moment: why not feed snails colourful pigments and then collect their vibrant-hued poo to make floor tiles and threads? Unfortunately, production moves at, well, a snail’s pace, taking an hour to make just one metre.


British artist Jonathan Yeo makes portraits of famous people using the medium of porn. That’s right: he is tasked with rifling through pornographic magazines to gather the right collage of images. It’s certainly not the most subtle approach, especially when considering who Yeo recreates: Paris Hilton, or even George Bush, who – as you can imagine – was composed of close-up shots of the hairier parts of the female anatomy.


Sometimes the best music has such a strong emotional impact on us that visual images are invoked. While that is normally thought of as the neurological phenomenon synesthesia, the San Francisco-based artist Liz Hickok makes music visual. Her dynamic sculptures and circuitous portraits are constructed from the magnetic strips found in cassette tapes.