Playing with Death

Gunther von Hagens's "Body Worlds”

The morbid sensation that is Gunther von Hagens's "Body Worlds” has raised anatomical consciousness and ethical hackles all over the world ever since it first opened in Japan in 1996. Donated bodies, preserved through a process dubbed "plastination,” are dissected and displayed in a detail and clarity previously available only to medical students. Doctors laud the dissections, which allow laymen a chance to look inside the human body and gain a new perspective on their own being. The inventor of plastination and impresario of this exhibit is Dr. Gunther von Hagens, who calls "Body Worlds” the "democratization of anatomy.”

Democracy, unfortunately, has kind of a funny ring to it in this context. Yes, everyone's free to come and learn about the human body for the price of a ticket. And everyone is free to donate his body to the Institute for Plastination, where von Hagens creates the exhibited "plastinates.” Donate. For free. To become a model that will either be displayed to paying customers or sold to a medical school. Either way, the democratization of anatomy is doing capitalism proud and making a lot of money from bodies donated to science, bodies whose donors agreed to serve a higher purpose in anatomical education.

So much money is being made, in fact, that copycat exhibits have begun popping up. Von Hagens discouraged anyone from seeing these exhibits in a recent radio interview, noting that while all the bodies on display in "Body Worlds” come from voluntary donors, those in the knock-off "Bodies . . . The Exhibition” are unclaimed Chinese corpses. It's possible that they're the bodies of political dissidents, killed off in prison; it's certain that they didn't consent to being put on display after death—nameless, skinless, and literally faceless.

The donors in "Body Worlds” consented, according to von Hagens. But there is no way to match donor forms to individual bodies. This is because the bodies are deliberately made anonymous. No one, not even an independent ethics auditor, is to know the names of those on display. They are there to remind the viewers of their own nature. The displayed cadavers, which are mostly shown flayed of their skin, speak to the viewers of life and death. As von Hagens puts it, they say, "I was what you are: living. You can become what I am: plastinated.”

A medieval memento mori this exhibit is not. These bodies are not dry skeletons moldering away in a churchyard, reminding Everyman that he cannot escape his final reckoning. No, these bodies are clean and brightly colored. The preservation process replaces all the liquids and fats in the body with, well, plastics (hence the name "plastination”), producing bodies and body parts that retain the texture and shape of flesh, but that are also as sturdy and bright as a set of Lego toys. Big person-shaped Legos. And "Body Worlds” is von Hagens's own personal F. A. O. Schwartz.

Before the plastic hardens, the bodies can be posed. They can be made to do anything that Gunther von Hagens wants them to do: play basketball, smoke a cigarette, ride a plastinated horse, even flirt with the viewer. Some of these plastinates are so fascinating, so artistic, that they are displayed with a Gunther von Hagens signature plaque. This plaque bears the name of the piece (The Lady of Arteries and Bones, The Winged Man, The Runner), the year of plastination, and yes, the black scrawl that is von Hagens's signature. He spoke of himself as an artist—in terms of craftsmanship—on the radio, and like any other artist, he has signed his pieces, which just so happen to be the bodies of other people.

A poster at the entrance to the exhibition hall informs viewers that "the identities, ages, and causes of death of the individual body donors are not given with these exhibits, because the exhibit focuses on the nature of our physical being, not on providing personal information on private tragedies.” Which sounds respectably scientific. Cut and dried, like a plastic model in a lab. But once the viewers enter the actual exhibit, they are surrounded with posters that bear quotes from famous philosophers. Immanuel Kant asks from one wall, "What can I know? What should I do? What may I hope for? What is man?” Plastinated body parts in glass cases, surrounded by full-body plastinates shown figure skating or releasing plastinated pigeons, cannot answer these decidedly unscientific questions.

In fact, these plastic bodies raise a more immediate question: Who were these people? One cannot gaze at these supposedly anonymous donors and not notice that even without names, marks of their unique personalities are still present. Eyebrows, lips, noses, and bellybuttons are left on the plastinates to make them less gruesome, more human. One gentleman still has his skin and thus his tattoos. Another is opened in such a way that his many artificial joints, metal plates, pins, and screws are exposed; he is a miracle of modern medicine, and there is something in his resilience that suits his current incarnation—delicately balanced in a snapshot of fluid motion—as The Tai Chi Man.

But when the marks of humanity contradict or call into question the poses into which these bodies have been put, the effect is disturbing. Who's to say that the man who became The Smoker wasn't just as arrogant as his winking eye and bourgeois paunch suggest? Perhaps he deserved the censure his blackened lung now earns him. But what of the numerous other figures displayed in healthy, athletic poses, showing off von Hagens's delight in the active human form? Did they deserve the praise they now receive? What about The Blocking Goalkeeper, The Ring Gymnast, and The Jumping Dancer?

These figures are all marvels of dissection, paragons of athletic beauty, though with tar-blackened lungs peeking out through their rib cages. Why is there censure for the man with the paunch, but none for the trimmer, more muscular smokers? The Ring Gymnast is displayed holding himself up on the rings, legs straight out in front of him because, as a placard says, he has "unusually strongly developed muscles.” But the conflict between pose and personal habit only denies—strongly denies—von Hagens's claim that these bodies are now anonymous. It becomes obvious that they were people at odds with the poses they now occupy.

In the worst example, an eight-months-pregnant mother reclines like a Playboy centerfold, one hand behind her head to show off the curve of breast and hip, her torso opened to expose her child in utero. In von Hagens's words, this "double tragedy” is indeed the "most emotional specimen” in the exhibit. Emotionally disturbing, that is. This woman donated her body to science when she learned, while pregnant, that she had a terminal disease. And now she looks like a gruesome hooker. Of course, this exhibit is not about focusing on personal dignity. But is it really necessary, in focusing "on the nature of our physical being,” to transform a "double tragedy” into a piece of soft-core porn?

No. True, there is nothing new in the act of reducing a woman to a mere piece of flesh, even a pregnant woman. But to do so is to ignore the truth of the woman, that her body is part of something more. The real problem with "Body Worlds” is that it admits the existence of this something more even while it plays with bodies like so many pieces of an Erector set.

On a poster next to the exit—just past the table with the body donation forms—Gunther von Hagens tells viewers that "the presence of the pure physical reminds visitors to 'Body Worlds' of the intangible and the unfathomable. The plastinated post-mortal body illuminates the soul by its very absence.” So in attempting to create new identities for these very individual bodies—individual because of the marks left on them by the souls that once lived in them—von Hagens says he is really trying to create an opportunity for "philosophical and religious self-recognition.” The reduction to anatomy is meant to enlarge the consciousness.

But anatomy cannot answer the questions of religion and philosophy. In holding up "the plastinated post-mortal body” as "an object of reverence,” von Hagens overshoots his mark. Better to have dissected the donated bodies, made truly anonymous plastic models with which to play, and let the bodies of the deceased rest in peace. Before I left the exhibit I stopped before the large glass plaque that reads in five languages, "In Memory of the Body Donors.” And I prayed, not for the first time since I'd entered, "God rest their souls.” •

From Salvo 3 (Summer 2007)

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This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #3, Summer 2007 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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