Art comes in many different forms, but for Nicholas Tsangarides, neither paintings nor sculptures captured his essence. His work is contained in small vials that burst with vibrant pinks, blues and yellows. A closer look at his art reveals the macabre reality behind the glass.
Specimens float suspended in fluid; their brightly dyed skeletons visible under layers of transparent flesh. The animals’ bones and cartilage are displayed in stunning detail, offering a unique glimpse into their inner structures.
For decades, natural history museums have been using the process of diaphonization to display animals. Equal parts art and science, the process involves chemically treating specimens to make their flesh transparent and staining the bone, muscle and cartilage.
Tsangarides recalls being utterly captivated the first time he encountered diaphonized specimens during a trip to the Royal Ontario Museum as a kid. While studying radiation therapy at the University of Toronto, he came across the protocols for diaphonization and he developed his practice under the title Nighttime Nicholas.
"It made me really want to create that experience for other people and to try to elicit that feeling in others as well,” he said.
First, Tsangarides gets specimens from zoos, museums or pet owners. He only works with recently deceased animals, and he does not kill animals or remove them from their natural habitats.
He then must meticulously remove all the skin, fat and organs, while leaving the brain intact inside the skull.
The animals are then preserved in formaldehyde, after which they are soaked in a dye that gradually stains their bones, muscles and cartilage. Next, the animals are bathed in a digestive enzyme that renders their flesh transparent.
All the tissues and muscles remain clear so that we can observe the skeleton entirely. It keeps everything together, kind of like a gummy bear with a tie dye skeleton,” said Tsangarides.
Although seasoned in his craft, Tsangarides still finds that imperfections can happen. Variables such as temperature, pressure and light can impact the finished product.
“I've tried to make a point of controlling as many of those variables as possible to have an expectation that I can produce the kind of piece that I have in mind,” said Tsangarides.
A deep respect for animals informs Tsangarides’ work. By dedicating time and care towards his pieces, Tsangarides transforms his specimens and gives them new life. He takes months to prepare, monitor and dye each animal.
“To me it's giving energy to this thing that would just go into the ground and become something else,” he said.
Furthermore, Tsangarides wants his pieces to serve as educational tools, offering an engaging glimpse at biology and reminding people of their fundamental similarities to other life forms.
Interacting with the pieces also serves as a reminder of our own mortality.
“The old philosophers used to do this, they would have a skull on their desk and it would remind them every day that our time is limited and it's important to live fully,” remarked Tsangarides.
At the same time, he wants to create a community for people who are fascinated by the macabre, and who have been isolated and made to feel different for their interests. By bringing his work to the public, he hopes to educate, inspire and welcome people into his community.
Although Tsangarides has never been to Supercrawl, he is excited to be featured at the Night Market at Absinthe during the festival weekend.
“I wanted to be a part of [Supercrawl] in some way because it is one of the largest street festivals in the country … Being away from the main Supercrawl strip I thought would be better for me because the setting of the night market is kind of punky and more of my clientele,” said Tsangarides.
Supercrawl is a chance for artists to gain more public exposure within the city and for Tsangarides, this event will give him the chance to share his love of art and science with the public and to serve as a reminder to live life to its fullest.
Nighttime Nicholas and his diaphonized works will be displayed at the Night Market at Absinthe on Friday Sept. 13 and Saturday Sept. 14 from 6 p.m. - 2 a.m. at Absinthe.