German Museum Has a Living Copy of Van Gogh’s Famous Ear

Diemut Strebe, Sugababe (2014). A living bioengineered replica of Vincent van Gogh’s ear, grown from tissue engineered cartilage cells procured from a direct male descendant, Sugababe contains natural DNA from Vincent and genetic engineered components of historical and synthetic DNA.
Photo: courtesy Ronald Feldman.

Everyone knows that tortured Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh cut off his own ear. As if the actual act was not disturbing enough, another Dutch artist has for some reason fabricated the long-dead artist a new ear from genetic material provided oneby of the artist’s relatives, reports the Guardian.

When Van Gogh, in the midst of a psychic breakdown (or, depending on who’s telling the story, in a fight with Gauguin) chopped off his ear and presented it as a gift to a horrified prostitute way back in 1888, he had no idea that he was reserving a place in the art history textbooks for his now-missing appendage, which has since become one of the most famous body parts in human history.

Now, artist Diemut Strebe has taken genetic samples from Lieuwe van Gogh, the great-great-grandson of the artist’s brother Theo van Gogh, and created a new ear, titled Sugababe, with computer imaging technology ensuring that the ear is a faithful copy of the artist’s body part.

The science of growing artificial ears dates back to 1995 and was developed by Robert Langer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University’s Charles Vacanti. Believe it or not, the Van Gogh ear, which is displayed suspended in a clear nutrient solution inside a glass case, is probably less disturbing than Langer and Vacanti’s first ear, which was incubated on the back of a mouse.

Before Strebe tracked down Lieuwe van Gogh, she actually tried extracting DNA from a postage stamp the famed Impressionist had allegedly licked. Eventually, she settled for a living relative, who willingly provided saliva and cartilage samples. The two should share the same Y-chromosome, and about one sixteenth of their genes in total.

The admittedly creepy project, a strange hybrid of art and science (the artist calls it a “living art-piece”), is on view at Centre for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, where visitors can use computer software that simulates nerve impulses to talk to the ear (whatever that means).

While the ear is just one of a limited edition, neither Van Lieuwe nor Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum is interested in owning a copy, according to Dutch News.

Nevertheless, artificially-grown ears are becoming a trend of sorts. An episode of this season of Elementary, the Sherlock Holmes television series starring Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu, featured a pair of replacement ears secretly incubated on a woman’s back, that figured in an elaborate murder frame-up job. According to the show, convincing faux ears are very easy to cultivate, and can be grown around a cartilage frame.

Sugababe will be on view at the museum through July 6, 2014, but Strebe may have plans to bring it to New York for her show at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts next spring.


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