Friday 24 November 2017

Arts with Sophie Gorman: Working up a lather

Artist Orestes De La Paz endured quite the ordeal for his latest exhibition in Dublin – he extracted his own body fat via liposuction surgery to make soap

Orestes De La Paz making soap from his own body fat
Orestes De La Paz making soap from his own body fat
Orestes De La Paz making soap from his own body fat

Sophie Gorman

Would you wash your body using soap made with the fat from someone else's body? The fat that had been sucked out of them by liposuction?

"It does make good lather, though," explains Orestes De La Paz, the man whose very body fat has been used to produce soap that is now on display –and in use – in Fat, the latest controversial and thought-provoking exhibition in Trinity College's Science Gallery (sciencegallery.com), which promises to astound you with the positive and alarming negatives of good old fat.

Born and bred in the Cuban population in Miami, Orestes grew up surrounded by body consciousness. Advertisements for liposuction and cosmetic surgery are as mainstream there as ads for chocolate bars are here. He wanted to explore this obsession in a very hands-on way and use his own body as his specimen.

Around 25pc of each bar of soap is made up of Orestes' spare blubber. That's not meant to sound flippant – the surgery Orestes went through to create this performance art is anything but flippant. Orestes, it should be pointed out, is not an obese man, he has a fairly standard build. But most of us carry some excess fat and it is considered safe to extract a certain proportion of that without damaging our body.

He says: "It was not so much about removing the fat but rather what this material was that had been removed, to see if it had any other potential, rather than to simply discard it as waste instantly out of sight, as if it never existed. In Miami, liposuction and cosmetic surgery are so common, it's all about looking perfect right now, instant transformation. But they gloss over the process. And I am almost more interested in the process than the result."

Regardless of how everyday it might be, liposuction is still a full surgical procedure that can take months to recover from fully. Was he worried about what he was unnecessarily putting his body through?

"There's always risk with surgery, so I was of course concerned," he says. "And I knew it wouldn't just be surgery one day, wake up entirely fine the next morning. It's so common in Miami that people don't consider the effects, only the final result. It is a physical procedure – it took me six weeks to recover."

A key part of Orestes' exhibit is video footage of his surgery and the whole procedure of making the soap. It is not for the squeamish.

"I knew I just had one chance at this, so I wanted the doctor to take enough to make the soap but not too much, he wasn't going to go back later to get more material!" The doctor extracted two litres of fat out of Orestes. The maximum is four litres, but Orestes was keen just to take out a safe amount.

Once the fat was removed, Orestes had to learn how to make soap. The first decision was that 25pc of his soap would be his human body fat.

The questions that you don't often find yourself asking in interviews: does your fat have a long shelf life? "There were some studies that said that fat that was frozen could last at least six to nine months. I didn't want to run the risk of it being exposed to anything in the air, so we instantly put it in a biomedical waste bag and froze it immediately. I only had one shot at this, I couldn't go through surgery again, so I spent three months when it was frozen learning everything I needed.

"Then I defrosted it, rendered it and made my soap. Soap is of course typically made using animal fat, so I just had to alter the formula and examine any different properties between animal and human fat. Because of our diet and our iodine content, our fat is closest to pig fat or lard, so I looked at formulas that used that." What a lovely thought – lard soap.

What kind of reaction does he get from people using his soap? "The spectrum of reactions is very wide, right from people who instantly want to make their own soap from their own fat to people who refuse to ever touch it," he says. "I think it has a lot to do with your culture and your personal upbringing. In the West, that someone would have something taken out of their body and made from makes it seem almost untouchable. But in other parts of the world it is considered a very resourceful use of waste matter."

Orestes made 20 bars of his soap, "but I have just brought 19 bars with me, the 20th bar is in Berlin in a performance art archive, it is strange but true to say that little piece of me will for ever be in Berlin".

As for Orestes' claims of a good lather? Well, having tried his soap with its scents of tea tree and lavender on myself, I can confirm that his fat does make good bubbles.

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