Heart Excavations

Artist Sofie Layton works with medical data to give physical form to personal narratives of maternal loss and bereavement. This post describes the process of creating Excavations, a performative work that explores a mother’s grief at having lost a young child to cancer. This is one of a series of essays addressing miscarriage, prematurity, stillbirth, neonatal and infant loss, published by The Polyphony to coincide with Baby Loss Awareness week, which runs 9-15 October every year.

Excavations explores a mother’s grief having lost a young child to cancer. The work stems from my own experience, but also draws on a decade of artistic participative practice within a clinical context, a practice that aims to bear witness to the narratives of patients and parents through an engagement with medical technologies.

Using clinical data to investigate the intangible spaces of absence, Excavations (2019; figure 1) re-appropriates personal and archival ultrasound images and MRI (magnetic resonance imagery) files, translating the data through an artistic research practice in order to articulate an autobiographical narrative of infant illness and maternal loss. The process suggests an excavation of memory, finding material form for the remains of something that is no longer there, but is nevertheless very present: using the ultrasound and MRI as both beginning and afterlife, it explores the challenges of making the invisible visible and tangible. The excavation process began as the literal recovery of the three-dimensional form of the heart using MRI data taken from mother and baby. MRI data can be collected in different ways: my own data set refers to the blood pool within the heart rather than to the muscle structure. The excavated image of the heart is therefore a liquid abstraction, representing the layers of the empty pulmonary chambers. The representation becomes topographical, each MRI slice a new geological stratum with its own contour patterns.

Figure 1. ‘Excavations’, 2019. MDF Valcromat sprayed boards 2.5 x 1.2 meters. © Sofie Layton.

My research into the heart and its abstractions developed out of an artist-in-residency at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) in 2016, where I explored the language, form and narrative of congenital heart disease. Working with bioengineer Giovanni Biglino alongside parents and patients, I explored how MRI data can be used to create 3D models, giving form to invisible conditions such as Hypoplastic left heart syndrome (figure 2). Patient and parent narratives were facilitated through these material encounters, often becoming an integral part of the work. For example, I worked with a mother whose unborn child’s heart condition had been diagnosed during a routine ultrasound. The mother had been given three options: to terminate; to wait until the baby was born and let her die naturally; or for her baby to have a series of operations in the knowledge that her life would always be time-limited and subject to advancements in medicine. A delicate participatory process of creative workshops and conversations with a number of mothers whose children have congenital heart conditions resulted in the artwork Sacred (figure 3), a lightbox and sound installation, exhibited as part of the exhibition The Heart of the Matter in 2018-19.

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Manufacturing loss / performing absence

The artwork Excavations is about the absence of a person: it explores maternal loss through the creation of the space that the heart once filled. Initially the baby’s heart’s contours were excavated using a machine that maps the tooling pathways; a drill piece bores its way down through the heart’s inner ravine – like stepped terraces, these become an exquisite etching of the heart. Drilling down, they get closer to the core data and the core meaning of the work. The MDF material is utilitarian, prosaic even but, worked and invested with the heart’s data, it becomes something delicate and precious. These initial experiments with the baby’s heart data (enlarged to the size of a new born child) encouraged me to incorporate my own heart data into my next series of experiments.

I made Excavations using a KuKa Robot to make the process more performative. For me grief is not linear, nor is it static. It is not marked by a moment in time. I therefore decided to create something that is a physical sequence and that marks time through the machine process of excavation. Although the machine has been programmed to work to a sequence, its pathways and cutting process are erratic, sometimes beautiful and sometimes brutal, much in the same way that grief erupts and surprises you when least expected. Enlarged, my heart data becomes a window into the empty unfurnished rooms of the inner chambers of the heart.

The material is Valcromat, a red dyed MDF in a rich red terracotta tone: this allows the excavation to literally bleed when the material is cut into. The surface is sprayed pink so that the tool literally pierces the skin of the material. Normally a sheet of MDF would be placed horizontally on a flatbed CNC machine. However, my collaborator Steve Bunn, head CNC technician at the Royal College of Art (RCA), and I decided to work with the material vertically in the Z plane, which allowed it to be filmed and the excavation pathways to be visible. Each facet of the heart was worked and fashioned in a different way as part of the research process.

The anthropomorphism of the KuKa Robot’s movements is mesmerising. Its precision gives a visceral quality to the excavation of my medical heart, drawing attention to the parallels between my own manufacturing process and the increasing use of robots to perform surgical operations.

Clouds of terracotta dust fall as the material is routed out. I am fascinated as the tooling process presents so many different visual possibilities and ways of looking at the form of the heart. The calcification of a moment in time, a heartbeat, is held in the abstracted space. Its appearance is liquid-like. A heart murmur, translated into form, shows excavated contours which reveals the topography of the heart.

Each face of the three slices has a different topography and the programming and machine’s tooling path is refined with each iteration of the process.  I become fascinated with the movement of the machine and would like to stop the process, as one does when drawing. However, the machine screams away, cutting relentlessly round and round. Its ear-piercing noise is poetic but not sweet, an agonising, boring process – slowly slicing away, layer by layer until the whole void form is revealed. I stand watching and listening to the scream, the tearing of the material.  I am taken back to the hospital – watching a person you know diminished by disease, the relentless beeping of the machine.

Post Excavation

Excavations explores the possibility of the excavation of memory from medical data, using the performativity of the manufacturing process as a metaphor for a physical unearthing of a past experience of loss. My premise is that through interdisciplinary practice, the artist transforms the medically derived information and the work becomes a conduit for autobiographical narratives. This methodology has the potential to transform the narrative of patients and families whose voices are not usually heard within an empirical subtractive scientific approach.

Grief is not linear. Its manifestations are highly individual and defy prescription: it erupts when we least expect it. Sometimes grief for a child is a soft-edged memory that brings a smile to your lips; at other times it is as sharp as the surgeon’s scalpel. The opportunity to find a methodology with which to excavate one’s own heart will always be a uniquely individual practice, but the need to find a form for the expression of absence is universal.


Artist Sofie Layton’s work explores the creative interface between patients and the scientific clinical landscape. Her past work includes site-specific performance, theatre, and installations. Wellcome Trust and ACE funded projects include a residency at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) (Under the Microscope) and an installation at Evelina Children Hospital (Bedside Manners). She was artist in residence with Historic Royal Palaces and created The Field of Flowers at Kensington Palace (2007) where 6,000 people contributed to ten 3.5-metre metal dandelions to mark the 10th anniversary of the death of the Princess of Wales. Sofie regularly collaborates with other artists, makers and musicians. She is an independently commissioned artist and has created work for the Blavatnik family’s private art collection. In 2017 she conceived and led The Heart of the Matter- www.insidetheheart.org,  a national project exploring the medical, experiential and metaphorical dimensions of the heart. She is in receipt of an AHRC, LAHP scholarship and is pursuing her PhD at the Royal College of Art. www.sofielayton.co.uk

The artwork ‘Excavations’ was created as part of Sofie’s MRes research by practice at the Royal College of Art 2018-2019. Parts of this text are extracts from her thesis.

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