The Death and Life of Colin Whitehead #1

Pieces of Colin Whitehead’s body were to be found in all the world’s major collections. His prices set new records and his last major retrospective at Tate Modern had seen crowds queuing round the block with touts fighting for tickets.

But that was not how it all began. His first show at the White Cone gallery had been relatively inauspicious. Obscenity spattered t-shirts, written in his own semen, illuminated under UV lights; soap sculptures stained with the blood from the cleansing of wounds self-inflicted with a sharpened pallet knife; A 12 inch dildo carved out of frozen urine.

It wasn’t till Whitehead dug deeper into the possibilities of his own bodily emanations that the art world started to take notice. His next piece, entitled ‘Consumer’, saw him walking around his local Asda with two carrier bags full of his own excrement. The work was described as ‘A cogent critique of consumer capitalism, part performance piece, part dirty protest and –when security guards chased Whitehead from the premises- part dance.’

The Sun called it ‘Filth!’.

It was soon after that he created his infamous ‘Vomit Quartet’: ‘Twenty Sausage Rolls and Eight Large Scotches’, ‘Seventeen Cornettos and Fifteen Pints of Lager’, ‘Chips, Three Sachets of Ketchup, Six Double Vodkas and a Spliff’ and the ‘Burger King/KFC/McDonalds supersize triptych’.

These seminal works -recently bought for the nation with a grant from the National Lottery- were said to have been inspired, and perhaps even made, during the course of an especially heavy weekend’s drinking with Victor Shilov the animal tattooist and Ingrid Lafargue the post-destructivist sculptor (who’s infamous work with caesium almost destroyed the Saatchi gallery on the opening night of her first one-woman show).

Whitehead then spent the next six months travelling the world, masturbating from the tops of the world’s ten tallest skyscrapers.

But it wasn’t until he moved from bodily effusions to the body itself that he started to make the crucial transition from controversial art world cult to international media celebrity and global superstar.

It didn’t happen overnight. And if he hadn’t been diagnosed with acute appendicitis and rushed to hospital on his return from an exhibition of toenail clippings in Milan, it might never have happened at all.

As Whitehead was to write six years later in his auto-biography ’Body of Work’:

“As soon as I woke from the operation, I was seized with a sensation of loss and a feeling of mourning. Unexpected emotions of profound grief filled me with a deep desire to be reunited with my appendix.

“I looked into ways of having it reincorporated back into my body. Obviously it couldn’t be grafted or surgically transplanted. So I decided the best way to reintegrate with it was through my art.”

Whitehead became friends with Dr Vijay Kudari, the head of the surgical team who’d removed his appendix. Kudari was a lover of art and an investor in contemporary prints. Meeting Whitehead marked a turning point in his life. When Whitehead suggested an artistic partnership, Kudari was intrigued.

“Whitehead wanted to preserve his appendix and exhibit it as a work of art.” Wrote Kudari in his preface to ‘Body of work’. “I liked the idea. It was different. I showed him how best to go about it. It was lucky he came to me when he did because I was just about to throw it away.”

Whitehead was beginning to see his body as a site of art.

“By transforming my appendix into a work of art I had metamorphosed its removal from my body into a birth. And in that process I was now reborn as an artist. My appendix became more than just a mere symbol of that re-birthing, it became the very act of re-birthing itself.

“Through this re-invention, through this re-genesis, I saw for the first time that a new kind of art could be created that owed nothing to the past, owed nothing to old out-dated methods of art production.

“Suddenly I was free. My appendix became an appendix to the very story of my old life and my old art; a footnote that would outlive and outgrow me as an individual and regenerate me as an artist -which is why I called the work ‘Appendix’.”

It was a breakthrough piece, but the world just wasn’t quite ready to see the deeper implications of it -yet. Much to Whitehead’s disappointment, ‘Appendix’ failed to make the radical impact he’d hoped for. There were those in the weekend press who began to question Whitehead’s ability to shock.

It became clear that he would have to take the concept a step further. But he couldn’t do it alone. Whitehead set about recruiting Dr Kudari to help him.

At first Kudari was reluctant. The new work that Whitehead envisaged was so radical, so very shocking. Nothing quite like it had ever been done before. But Whitehead was persuasive. Hadn’t Kudari saved his life by removing his appendix? Hadn’t he unwittingly helped Whitehead see the way forward in his work? Wasn’t it fated that they should work together?

Kudari had, till that moment, lived a conventional life. He’d always done as his parents had told him; always come first at school and he’d excelled at medical college. He’d married the right girl and had four beautiful children who he adored. Now here was a chance to do something different; something scandalous that might even make him some money. After many days of negotiations and much soul-searching, he finally said yes.

Whitehead and Kudari relocated to Switzerland where the law was less restrictive to their purpose. Three months later, after much struggle, the new work was unveiled at the Neue Kuntz Laboratorium in Zurich. The exhibition catalogue described the piece as ‘Mixed media. Sealed glass jar. Formaldehyde. Signet ring. Human hand.’

It was a sensation. With a few masterful strokes of Dr Kudari’s surgical scalpel and oscillating saw, Whitehead had completely revolutionised art.

The work – entitled ‘Hand’- showed, for the first time, that the artist’s hand, for so long the facilitator of western art, could be unshackled from the decorative bourgeois constraints of creativity. From now on Whitehead would no longer be merely the producer of art but would become the very art that he produced.

At last the critics hailed him. “A fresh voice.” They said. “A revolutionary new vision.”

‘Hand’ sold for $20 million at auction in New York. The buyer was a Chinese property developer who phoned in his bid from his yacht moored outside of Miami.

“Galleries and status collectors all over the world clamoured for Whitehead’s work. And he wasn’t slow in delivering.

The Guggenheim bought his teeth. An anonymous private collector bought a selection of his toes strung on a necklace. The Centre for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam acquired his left eye. The Getty became the proud possessor of his left kidney intricately carved into the shape of a dialysis machine.

No one was surprised when Whitehead won that year’s Turner prize. At his acceptance ceremony he famously quipped: “It just goes to show what you can do with a scalpel and your own body.”

He counted pop stars, film stars and politicians amongst his friends. He dated the world’s most beautiful women. There was barely an ‘A’ list party where he wasn’t to be seen in his trademark surgical gown and slippers.

He bought a luxury ski chalet in Lausanne with stables for his sports cars, its own farm, a cellar for his wines and a state of the art operating theatre.

He bought paintings and rare antiques; visited the world’s most exotic places. He commissioned his own luxury yacht -a cutter, as he never ceased to repeat cheerily to anyone who’d listen.

His heavily bandaged face appeared on the cover of Time and Newsweek. Fuelled by celebrity, cocaine and his own runaway ego, Whitehead entered upon his most productive period yet.

His left arm represented Britain at the Venice Biennale; Whitehead having arduously worked the bicep for six months with his personal trainer before dissection. He then videoed himself feeding his right leg to his pigs and had the resulting film projected onto the walls of the Swiss Stock Exchange. And in a master-stroke, described by critics as his most radical gesture yet, he sold his remaining eye to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

“You don’t need eyes to see my work.” Said Whitehead “So why should I need eyes to create it?”

And there were the non-surgical works, too: ‘Foot blown off with shotgun’, ‘Skin scraped off with cheese grater’ and ‘Little finger trapped in safe door containing $10 million of gold bullion’.

Whitehead – or what was left of him – was rich and successful beyond his wildest dreams.

In the summer of that year he married Lucja Kot, a theatre nurse on his surgical team. Lucja had tended to his wounds and listened to his doubts as more and more of his body had disappeared. Society girls and models would come and go but Lucja was always there with a bed pan, a pain killer and a ready ear. It was inevitable that love would blossom one day.

Everyone agreed it was the big society wedding of the year. The reception took place at the Beau Rivage. Celebrities from the world of art, finance and politics flocked to watch the two lovers commit to each other. ‘Hello’ magazine paid $2 million for the rights to photograph the wedding cake alone.

It was said – and no one to this day is sure if it was in jest or not – that a middle east peace conference had to be delayed because so many of the delegates were in Lausanne that sunny celebrity-filled afternoon.

Later that year, Lucja gave birth to a baby girl. It was a long labour but Whitehead was unable to attend as he was in another wing of the hospital having his left testicle removed.

They named the child Honey-Bluebell-Television.

But from the outset the marriage was less than harmonious. Whitehead was a neglectful husband and an absent father. He was prone to violent mood swings. Having found love he turned away from it and lost himself ever more in his work.

His life became a never-ending ritual of surgery and amputation followed by painful recuperation and wild partying. Lucja begged him to stop, if not for her sake then for the sake of their child. His family tried too. His mother beseeched him on her knees to change his ways. Whitehead’s response was to give her a sculpture made from a length of his colon tied in a knot.

Whitehead’s descent, once it started, quickly took on a quite vertiginous pace. On top of the painkillers prescribed by Dr Kudari, he was drinking heavily and experimenting with ever-greater quantities of recreational drugs. His behaviour became ever more erratic. There was an incident with a shotgun that was hushed up with a substantial payment to a police charity.

At length Lucja decided she could take no more. Citing his unreasonable behaviour, she filed for divorce and returned to Cracow with Honey-Bluebell-Television to pursue a career illustrating avant-garde children’s books.

The loss of his wife affected Whitehead more than anyone expected. She’d nursed him, cared for him and cleaned him. He’d repaid her with neglect and abuse. She’d loved him and he’d spurned her. Too late, he realised he’d lost the only person who had ever really mattered to him. And there was nothing he could do about it.

From then on his work became his only sustenance. He retreated from the world. His public appearances became limited to the ones he made in glass jars filled with formaldehyde. It is from this period that he produced his darkest, most painful and, some would argue, his greatest piece: ‘Penis’.

In the last months of Whitehead’s life his health deteriorated rapidly. Dr Kudari begged his friend to take a rest from the work that was destroying him and could only lead to his death. But Whitehead no longer had eyes to see nor ears to hear – quite literally.

His art was his only outlet. Without it he had nothing. He could not, would not stop. When asked by a journalist how he coped with the pain of producing his work, he’d replied: “It’s the pain of not doing it that I couldn’t cope with.”

These were the last words he ever uttered. The following day he had his tongue removed and sliced into the shape of a crucifix.

At last Dr Kudari could take it no more and he left Switzerland with his family for good. Whitehead had now estranged himself from everyone who had ever cared for him. He surrounded himself with sycophants and hangers-on who encouraged him to produce ever more outlandish pieces.

This was the period when he minced his left lung and had it packaged in a polystyrene tray; when he had surgical gloves made from the skin off his back; when he had a new orifice drilled into his buttocks and when, in a knowing nod to older methods of art production, he drew a portrait from memory of his little finger with the charred stump of the very same finger.

In the end he went too far. Following an operation to have his vocal cords removed – with the intention of stringing them on a ukulele carved out of his hip bone- he caught an infection, and was rushed to hospital where he subsequently died. It took him three days. He was twenty-eight years old.

The art world mourned the loss of their golden son. Whitehead was cremated under conditions of the strictest secrecy. To confound potential art thieves his ashes were scattered at sea at a secret location.

There were posthumous retrospectives, TV specials, commemorative books and magazine supplements. As the Times obituarist put it: ‘Other than in glass jars in art galleries and private collections, we shall never see his like again.’

But the story was not to end there.

Picture source: Wellcome Images