The Body Shop
A copy of "Donating Your Body for Plastination" was enclosed in my press kit for "Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds 3: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies" at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. PDF donor consent forms are available online at www.bodyworlds.com. Dr. Gunther von Hagens thinks of everything!
Von Hagens is the creator of the corpse-preservation process known as "plastination," in which water and soluble fats are removed from the body and replaced with polymers like silicon. The process results in lovely, long-lasting and odor-free cadavers! Just what we all were waiting for. The "Body Worlds" exhibition presents the products of von Hagens's process.
Health education is the stated goal of von Hagens's "Body Worlds" exhibition, and parts of it are really fascinating. It leads in with bones and skeletons, moves on to organs, and then hits you with the full-on corpses. There is informational text with each object, and the audio guide is actually quite good, giving you scientific information in layman's terms about bone, organs, nerves...This would have made biology class a helluva lot more interesting.
When I visited the exhibition, it contained a real cross-section of Houstonians, and everyone seemed pretty uniformly fascinated. It's not often most of us get to see all the stuff that's inside of us up close and personal. I stood next to an elderly woman and her son peering into a case containing an arthritic knee joint. She conversationally remarked to her son, "Well, that's probably what's going on with my knee right now..."
If you've got any hard-drinking, chain-smoking friends you're trying to reform, this is the show to bring them to. In the organ section, you can see the unsettling effects of cirrhosis of the liver. As for nicotine, while most people have seen pictures of clean pink lungs contrasted with grotty smoker lungs, the effect of massive, real organs is a lot more powerful. The smoker's lungs look like they were used to clean somebody's grill.
While the bodies and their contents are informative and intriguing, it's when von Hagens tries to get creative with them that things get tacky and questionable. The first sign of this is the skeleton kneeling at the entrance to the show and leaning against a cross in the manner of a "Teutonic Knight." Holding its heart in its hands, the skeleton still has its eyeballs, which goggle heavenward. And this is one of the mildest displays of von Hagens's Germanic tendency toward the macabre and baroque. There's also the guy standing holding his own skin. It's meant to illustrate the skin as a weighty organ in itself, but it just has way too many Auschwitz overtones.
A display of a body standing and holding a cell phone is kind of stupid but fairly innocuous. But the female trapeze artist who hangs by her feet with her front reflected in an angled mirror is de trop. Her eyes stare out; her mouth is an ellipse of skin; the circles of fat that once were her breasts are left intact with nipples; her plastinated genitalia are at eye level. This contorted staging is just too tacky and pointless. What exactly is this telling us?
Shooting for the drama of equestrian statues, and apparently at da Vinci himself, von Hagens plasticized a figure on a horse, dissecting the man's body in layers. The man not only holds a whip to strike the horse, but his own brain and the horse's smaller brain. This is supposed to be meaningful commentary. Things get worse in a scene with three guys sitting around a table playing cards. They're variously dissected, and one's brain seems to levitate from his head. Meanwhile, another hands an ace to him with his foot to give him the "dead man's" hand of two aces and two eights. How profound.
But I think the real low point is when von Hagens gets all Grimm's Fairy Tales with a figure whose muscle tissue is flayed away from his body, standing out like feathers. He is described as riding an "imaginary broom." Yeah, right: that would be his hands wrapped around his own trachea, standing in as the "broom" handle.
A friend remarked that the show reminded him of horsing around with the skeleton in his eighth-grade biology class. Aspects of the show are interesting and really educational; the problem is that von Hagens tries to go beyond teaching and make grandiose statements about mortality. Too many of the figures are flayed in ways that just emphasize how von Hagens can pick a body apart. They aren't instructive, and I saw visitors spending much more time with the less bizarre examples. He keeps trying to wander into art territory, and he sucks at it.
So how did von Hagens get all these bodies anyway? Well, that brings us back to "Donating Your Body for Plastination." See, you too can sign your body over to his greater good, or greater profit. The "Body Worlds" materials make a point of emphasizing the ethical nature of the donation process and its consent forms. In the case of the "Body Worlds" exhibits, the "whole bodies" have been scrupulously vetted and documented. But some of the organs on display were acquired through institutions and anatomical collections whose method of acquisition is unknown.
Von Hagens maintains a Heidelberg address for the "Institute for Plastination," but he now lives in Dalian, China, where he has built a massive "Plastination City." He has also set up facilities in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. He says he's acquired anatomical material in Kyrgyzstan, Russia and China. Der Spiegel reported that the bodies of executed Chinese had been used in an exhibition, but the allegations were unsubstantiated, and an injunction was issued against the magazine. Von Hagens vehemently denies the charges.
There is also a whole lot of commerce going on with all these dead people. At $22 a ticket for adults, it seems von Hagens is doing a brisk business. And there are apparently three separate "Body Worlds" exhibitions currently on tour. The first debuted in Japan in 1996 and since then has been viewed by almost 18 million people in 32 cities in Asia, Europe and North America. Von Hagens also sells plastinated bodies to medical schools. He emphasizes that he doesn't make a profit on the body, but does charge for "preservation work" and includes fees to "finance the cost of new developments in plastination." A 2002 article in the London Observer stated that fees for corpses varied between $19,000 and $37,000 (around $33,000 to $65,000 by 2006 conversion rates). That seems a little steep, considering he's doing all his work in China using young medical graduates housed four to a room in dorm-style conditions.
Von Hagens's enthusiasm for his cause crosses way over into the creepy. He is a tireless advocate for plastination and has grand designs for how his own body will be preserved and dismembered. He's working on a cult of personality; his name is on everything from the exhibition's title to its logo. My press kit also includes a self-published hardcover biographical tribute. For additional idiosyncrasy, von Hagens continually wears a costume, a felt hat and vest. He looks exactly like Joseph Beuys, the German artist who cultivated his own cult of personality, but he denies any emulation of Beuys. (Apparently it is just some uniform for balding German men?) According to von Hagens, the hat is an allusion to the one worn by an anatomist in a Rembrandt painting. It is one of many art-historical references he attempts.
Ultimately, von Hagens's P.T. Barnum showmanship overrides the educational aspects of the show. He may have developed this revolutionary method for preserving corpses, but I think somebody else should be appointed creative director.
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