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This piece deals with the relationship between the subjective experience of identity and self and the physical nature of the human body touching upon issues of materiality and transience.

Sitting quietly on the pages of thousands of text books and web sites, I found the chemical composition of the human body. Science categorizes the composition of body in many ways, by atomic element, by mass, by volume, by tissue, etc. 

Based on percentage of mass, I calculated that, roughly, in my body, (about 60 kilos or 132 pounds of human being) there is:

Oxygen 39 kilos
Carbon 10.8 kg
Hydrogen 6 kg
Nitrogen 1.8 kg
Calcium 840 g
Phosphorus 150 g
Sulfur 150 g
Potassium 150 g

And this accounts for about 99% of my mass. 

Originally, I thought about showing the elements in their purest form but most elements don’t occur pure in nature – they also are not conveniently solid at room temperature.  Most elements combine with each other forming millions of different compounds some organic, others inorganic. Some elements are easier, like sulfur which can be found solid at hot springs. Others are harder like hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen which are gases. This is one of the mysteries of Life, its need and ability to fix these specific elements.

Hydrogen and oxygen were represented with water, leaving out about 1 kg of hydrogen. I ignored in this version that the water was not pure, likely many elements, especially minerals, added to the weight and substituted oxygen and hydrogen. Note, this amount of water is more than the actual amount of water in the body (H2O).

Organic matter is defined by including carbon. To represent the 10 kg in my body I used the same amount of charcoal.

Nitrogen is very common in life and it’s very hard to fix. It's indicated with a column of air that contained as much nitrogen as I think exists in my body. Nitrogen is commonly used in fertilizers as agriculture drains this resource from the soil.

Calcium is probably one of the most familiar component of the body – it is commonly used as a diet supplement for humans and pets. Many eggs and milk products now advertise “fortified with calcium” and sometimes “fortified with calcium and vitamin D to help you absorb the calcium.” We have calcium primarily in our bones and teeth, and I was very surprised to discover I only had 840 g of calcium in my body. As a nod to my Portuguese roots, I represented calcium with limestone, a common stone used in sidewalks – the traditional calçada.

Sulfur was one of the easiest substances to find. It is easily bought at hardware or gardening stores as it is used to clean vines.

Phosphorus and potassium were not included in the installation because they were considered too dangerous. They are solid metals at room temperatures but are explosive in contact with water, and in these amounts, they could present a real danger. These elements can be handled safely with a minimum of easy measures but we decided to not include them in this first installation.


Water, charcoal, air, limestone, sulfur 

Site specific installation


98% of 60 kilos of human being

(Hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, calcium, carbon, sulfur)

Joana Ricou, copyright 2013

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