Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Artist's 46-year-old loo paper to be studied

Billy Apple's decades-old lavatory paper is now part of a scientific study at Auckland University. Photo / Otago Daily Times
Billy Apple's decades-old lavatory paper is now part of a scientific study at Auckland University. Photo / Otago Daily Times

One of the most shocking exhibitions in the history of British art - featuring tissues soiled by Billy Apple ­­- is now the focus of a new Kiwi scientific study.

When the artist unveiled his work Body Activities ­- consisting of tissues and cotton buds stained with excrement and other bodily fluids - at London's Serpentine Gallery in 1974, authorities immediately ordered it be taken down.

But he kept all the original tissues and more than 45 years later, researchers have found a new purpose for them, in the latest intriguing collaboration between the 80-year-old and top New Zealand scientists.

"Billy has provided us with fecal samples that are 46 years apart, and by looking at the bacteria from these, we can understand how Billy's gut bacteria have changed," said Dr Justin O'Sullivan, of the Auckland University-based Liggins Institute.

"These types of samples are extremely rare."

In the study, being led by PhD student Thilini Jayasinghe, the team is using a method called "16S amplicon sequencing" which effectively takes copies and sequences regions of the bacterial DNA.

These are then used to search a database and identify the bacteria.

"It has a lot of similarity to the toll gate on the northern express way - cars pass through, number plates are photographed, and then the numbers used to identify the individual cars from the database."

O'Sullivan and his colleagues have been offering senior high school students with an opportunity to perform this type of analysis on soil bacteria for the past six years.

"This project provides us with a new avenue through which we can expose a different audience to the scientific advances that are changing our understanding of ourselves - as walking, talking ecosystems.

"More studies like this will help us understand how bacteria change us and contribute to non-communicable diseases."

Apple was amused at the renewed interest in the work.

"Who the hell keeps their tissues for 46 years unless it's an art work?" he told the Herald.

"But for them, it's a pretty special project, and I'm just thrilled to be able to work with them."

Apple has a long history of collaborating with scientists and bridging the worlds of research and art.

In 1970, he collaborated on an installation, Laser Beam Wall, with renowned physicist and white light laser pioneer Dr Stanley Shapiro.

Four decades later, at the instigation of Dr Craig Hilton, Otago University-based New Zealand Genomics Ltd sequenced Apple's entire genome.

Some of his personal genetic information is detailed in a diagram and printed onto canvas which the artist likens to a new type of self-portrait.

In 2008, in another project with Hilton, dubbed "The Immortalisation Of Billy Apple®", cells were taken from his blood and scientifically altered using a virus so that they would keep regenerating forever.

The cell lines - formally named after Billy Apple® - are now held at University of Auckland's School of Biological Sciences and the American Type Culture Collection, Virginia, a biological culture repository that aids studies in areas such as cancer research.

"It's a curious thing for an artist - I'm in a collection in a cell bank, it's just like one of my works being in the Tate Britain collection: it's incredible.

"The body may go but the cells will live on."

Works by Apple, who is represented by Auckland's Starkwhite, will also be showcased as part of Queenstown Research Week - this year staged in Nelson - this week.

The diagram of his genome will be presented in a talk to researchers, while the exhibition Cell Culture runs at Nelson's Suter Gallery until Sunday.

About Billy

• Born Barrie Bates in Auckland, changed his name to Billy Apple in 1962 and became a registered trademark in 2007.

• Moved to New York in 1964 and spent the 1960s and 1970s heavily involved in the pop art movement. His work is now held in museums and galleries around the world.

• Has had his entire genome sequenced and donated a cell line, formally named after him, to research.

- NZ Herald

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