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January 10, 2008

Vial Things

Posted in: Accessories

Simon Costin

Simon CostinSimon Costin

Simon Costin (British, b. 1963). “Incubus” Necklace, 1987. Silver, copper, Baroque pearls, and glass vials filled with samples of human sperm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mr. Simon Costin, 2006 (2006.364a, b).

The “Incubus” necklace is perhaps Simon Costin’s most notorious piece. When it was first displayed in a London gallery in 1987, the design was impounded by the police, and the artist was threatened with prosecution. As fashion historian Caroline Evans writes, “Surmounted by a little metal plaque that said ‘vice and virtue,’ the piece invoked the dark sensibility of Elizabethan and Jacobean literary imagery, suggesting an attraction of opposites that characterized much of the fashion sensibility of the following decade: vice and virtue, beauty and horror, sex and death.” Like other contemporary designers and artists, Costin also alluded to the interest in the nineteenth-century collector’s cabinet and that period’s preoccupation with documenting phenomena associated with the body. Costin’s work was made at a time when other artists were employing body fluids as a medium for their art, such as Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a plastic crucifix submerged in the artist’s own urine, and Marc Quinn’s self, a sculpture of the artist’s head formed of 9 1/2 pints of his own frozen blood.

For the design of the “Incubus” necklace, I used various elements from the story. The basis of the design is an intricate pattern of roots made from copper, which I gently buried for several months in order for the earth to give a natural and random patina. Overlaying this are several silver-plated swimming sperms. I wanted to use a base metal and silver plate as a reference to the corrupt nature of the church—seeming to be one thing on the surface but something else inside. The five Baroque pearls are a further symbol of this. A small scroll is engraved with the words Vice and Virtue, the two things that most preoccupy the church. The five phials refer to the five elements called upon in contemporary paganism: Fire, Water, Earth, Air, and Spirit. All these elements were also used in the making of the piece. Finally, there are the five “donations” used to fill each phial. Four friends were given a container to take away and were asked to return in a week. I provided the fifth contribution. After the week had passed, my friends returned and their donations were sealed forever within the phials, and the silver cap ends were added.

The “Incubus” necklace was complete.

—Simon Costin


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