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This Ear Was Made With Vincent Van Gogh’s DNA

What secrets have been whispered into this creepy, living copy of the most famous ear in art history?

Can you hear me now? Good. (Diemut Strebe)
smithsonian.com

Vincent van Gogh's ear is nearly as famous as his jaw-dropping Starry Night. Though its final resting place may never be found—as the legend goes, he severed off part of his ear and then gave it to a prostitute—museumgoers in New York can get a look at the next best thing. ArtNet's Sarah Cascone reports that a living replica of van Gogh's ear, created using the artist's DNA, is now on display at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in New York City.

The ear is the gruesome brainchild of Diemut Strebe, a conceptual artist who partnered with scientists from MIT and other universities to create a copy of van Gogh's ear. Using DNA extracted from a stamp licked by the artist, as well as cell samples collected from van Gogh's great-great-grandnephew, Strebe and team created "Sugababe," an artificially grown ear suspended in a clear gel.

Visitors don't have to merely look at the ear—they can talk into it, too. On her website, Strebe writes that "the input sound is connected to a computer processor, using a software program to generate simulated nerve impulses from the sound signal in real time. They mimic sounds recorded from an electrode inserted into the auditory nerve, when firing." Noam Chomsky was the first person to speak into the ear after it debuted in Germany last year.

In a 2014 story about the bizarre art project, Cascone writes that the ear is "just one of a limited edition." Neither van Gogh's relatives nor the Dutch museum that bears his name want copies of their own.

If "Sugababe" is a slightly macabre commentary on fame and art, it's also a tribute to a world-famous artistic body part. It's not certain what actually happened to van Gogh's ear: though he supposedly gave it to a prostitute during a mental breakdown, recent scholarship suggests that it was actually cut off by Paul Gauguin during an argument between the two artists.

Perhaps van Gogh could have benefitted from 21st-century ear replication technology. Still, there's no telling what the painter—who once proclaimed that the idea of exhibiting his work left him "absolutely cold"—would make of artwork inspired by one of his darkest moments.

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