Sunday, 13 July 2008

Dead men walking

The Body Worlds exhibition, currently in London, has attracted unreserved admiration, fierce criticism and enormous crowds. Ori Golan finds out why.

Looking at the poster for the Body Worlds exhibition you could be forgiven for thinking this was an advertisement for the London dungeon. Adorning it is a flayed male, with his eyes bulging and the top half of his cranium removed, exposing his brain. Once inside the exhibition, you can view the insides of the human body, flayed, frozen or dissected. And what’s more astonishing is that each exhibit was once a living person.

All the bodies on display were bequeathed by people who declared during their lifetime that their bodies should be made available after their deaths for the instruction of medical professionals and non-professionals alike. This exhibition is the creation of Professor Gunther von Hagens, a German anatomist who has devised a way to preserve bodies intact using plastination – a technique where tissues are completely saturated with special plastics in a vacuum, leaving an odorless, preserved corpse. Since the plastics lend a high degree of rigidity to the tissues, it allows entirely new forms of anatomical display. Entire human bodies can now be displayed upright in life-like positions, or sliced into various cross-sections. A man shorn of his skin, sits hunched over a chessboard, looking pensive. An elderly woman examines specimen of male genitalia, clears her throat and moves on.

Is this education? Art? Voyeurism? Or a freak show? The answer is not – excuse the pun – clear-cut.

Certainly Body Worlds provides a unique opportunity for the general public to peer inside a real human body and study it at close range. You can find out where, or what, the duodenum is; discover the different parts of the brain and peer at a gallbladder with gallstones in it; or follow an individual’s digestive system from the tongue, through the liver, down the small intestine and all the way to the rectum. If you’re arthritic and want to find out what arthritic joints look like, or examine an artificial knee joint, it is there on display. A dense mesh of red-colored blood vessels outlines the shape of an adult male, demonstrating the incredible complexity of our blood system. Did you know that if all of the blood vessels were laid end to end, they would go twice around the equator? In that sense, Body Worlds is a lesson in anatomy, unlike anything you’ve experienced in the classroom. "One of my biggest aims" says van Hagens, "is to democratize anatomy." This, he has clearly achieved: the exhibition attracts hordes of school children and coach-loads of lay people. Eight-and-half million visitors so far.

There are, however, aspects to Von Hagen’s show which justify criticism of sensationalism. In one section you can see a newborn child with a misshaped head (caused by hydrocephalus – water on the brain); you may prefer to admire a pair of Siamese twins joined in their stomach, or gape at a young child with her internal organs protruding from her belly. In a corner, a pregnant woman reclines on a bench, her stomach hacked off to expose an unborn child curled in her womb. This not just a collection of gruesome exhibits eliciting gasps from visitors, but also a slightly grotesque form of entertainment, reminiscent of Victorian freak shows. Some human specimens have been sculpted in comic – if not perverse – positions. Take the Mystical Plastinate for example. This is a figure resembling a witch on a broomstick, except that the broomstick is composed of the figure’s own intestines. Would the donor have approved of being preserved like this? You can only speculate. Whether this is art, humor or bad taste, is a matter of opinion. In any case, one thing is certain: this donor is not turning in her grave.

Van Hagens insists that he is a scientist, not an artist, and his displayed specimens are not art. As scientists go he is a slightly eccentric one. He only ever agrees to be photographed with his black felt fedora on. His mission, he claims, is to enlighten the public about the human body and its working functions. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that some of the exhibits on display are there for their artistic appeal. The Runner, for instance, depicts a man in running motion, his muscles pulled back to give the appearance of movement. This has little to do with the study of anatomy, but it does have a strong artistic impact.

One of the most striking pieces on show is that of a rider on a vaulting horse. Both have been plastinated, with their internal organs and muscles exposed. Huge, imposing, artistically crafted in mid-motion, it is truly spectacular.

Surveys of visitors to Body Worlds show that people are more likely to look after their bodies, take regular exercise, and give up smoking after visiting the exhibition. This is hardly surprising after you view the blackened lungs of a heavy smoker lying next to a pair of healthy lungs. The stark difference between the diseased liver of an alcoholic and a healthy variety, also drives the health message home, prompting vows and resolutions. Interestingly, the exhibition has attracted a large number of body donors who have signed up to have their mortal coil plastinated when the grim reaper comes to collect. Over 4,500 volunteers have chosen not to rest in peace, but in pieces. They will be disemboweled, flayed, frozen, dissected and artistically displayed after their death, for posterity.

An exhibition of chopped-up corpses was bound to court controversy. And it has. Its detractors dub Body Worlds sensationalist, grotesque and sacrilegious; a show designed to appall decent people and appeal to the macabre. Von Hagens has been branded a pimp artist and accused of undermining the dignity of his ‘models’. Shortly before the exhibition opened in Britain he was charged with gross insensitivity by victims of the Alder Hey Hospital scandal whose dead children’s organs were illegally removed three years ago without their consent or knowledge. There are other contentious aspects to Body Worlds, particularly relating to the provenance of some of the exhibits. He was accused by the Daily Mail of being a grave robber following claims that a number of corpses he used were those of prisoners, mentally incapacitated and homeless people who died in the Russian city of Novosibirsk and were never claimed. Von Hagens denies these allegations, but has not mounted any legal challenges to counter them.

Recently he appealed for a terminally ill patient to donate his body after death to be dissected and ‘modified’ by surgeons into a ‘super-human’. Ideas already put forward include increasing the number of ribs to protect internal organs better, create backward-bending knees to lessen wear on joints and constructing a retractable penis. Given von Hagens’ German origin, and Germany’s horrific practices of eugenics 60 years ago, there is something profoundly unsettling in this venture. Far from taking offence, he appears to enjoy courting criticism. Not one to miss on a publicity stunt, last week he carried out a public autopsy in London amid media frenzy and speculations that he may be arrested following claims that this was illegal. The autopsy on the 72 year-old man went ahead, but before completing it, and to the astonishment of the audience, von Hagens walked out to give an interview to national television, leaving his assistants to finish the job.

On balance, however, Body Worlds is an amazing voyage inside the human maze: a rare opportunity to see real organs in real bodies. It is a chance to confront our mortality and stare death in the face.

From the early hours of the day long queues snake outside the Old Truman Brewery in East London’s Brick Lane, where Body Worlds is currently showing. Go see it, it’s dead good.

Body Worlds is currently showing in the Atlantis Gallery , The Old Truman Brewery, 146 Brick Lane · London E1 6QL Opening hours:Daily from 9 am to 9 pm (last admission). Running until February 9, 2003.

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