Health

The thought-provoking 'tooth fairy palace'

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Media captionThe teeth are donated by children who surrender them to the project in return for a token

In the chilly studio of Liverpool-based artist Gina Czarnecki, a fantasy palace has taken shape.

It is a riot of towers and tendrils, resembling something out of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings.

It has been christened the Tooth Fairy Palace, but like many fairy tales, all is not as it seems as it has been designed to raise awareness about stem cell research and its implications.

The palace will gradually become encrusted with real teeth - the teeth of children.

It is 2m high and the same distance across and is made from clear crystal resin.

Light is refracted and reflected, making it shine and sparkle.

But in small clusters, baby teeth have been carefully glued on to the sculpture, making them appear as if they are little growths of coral.

These teeth can be a source of stem cells, the focus of pioneering and sometimes controversial research.

It was while attending a public workshop on stem cell research given by biologist Prof Sara Rankin, from Imperial College, London, that Gina first had the idea for a work of art that included ideas about stem cells.

But she says there was another source of inspiration much closer to home.

"It started with my daughter who was then seven, coming home from school and looking at me and saying 'just tell me the truth, is the Tooth Fairy real?'.

"And at the same time she was learning about Adam and Eve and evolution, and I thought, this must be really confusing for her.

"So this palace evolved from conversations about stem cells, but also about truth and illusion, and about consent to giving a piece of you to build a big public artwork that you're part of and you helped build."

Image caption All is not as it seems in the Tooth Fairy Palace

The teeth are donated by children who surrender them to the project in return for a token they can then leave under the pillow for the Tooth Fairy.

That means they do not miss out financially when the Tooth Fairy comes to call.

And it is Prof Rankin who has been selling the idea to children in schools, telling children about the project and her work as a scientist.

"Once you've explained the issue of the tooth token, generally all the children I've spoken to are very excited about the prospect of having their teeth part of this palace.

"It depends on what age group you're talking to. The seven-year-olds just like the idea that this is a piece of art they are literally going to be part of.

"When I talk to older children, we get into the issues about stem cells and other important things for discussion."

'Slightly disturbing'

And one thing the work does, says Prof Rankin, is to change the way we think about body parts we might otherwise dismiss as unimportant.

"These include things like fat from liposuction, umbilical cords, or indeed baby teeth.

"All these body parts, currently classified as clinical waste, are actually potential sources of adult stem cells that could be very valuable in our future health care."

The sculpture will be shown at Liverpool's Bluecoat, before moving to the Science Museum in London next year and then the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry in 2013.

Alastair Upton, chief executive of the Bluecoat, says it is a work that will draw people in and make them think.

"It's beautiful and thought-provoking and then slightly disturbing.

"What we have here is art that is bringing us in to understand some of the work that science is doing and to make us think about the consequences of the by-products, literally and metaphorically, that science has."

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