Public executions have always been well attended. Road accidents cause rubber necking traffic jams. A neighbor across the street who undresses in the window can inspire investing in a telescope. Voyeurism – wanting to see someone naked, have sex, or die without them seeing you – is a fundamental human tendency. Films, television, and newspapers thrive on that account. Expanding on the tradition is Gunther Von Hagens, a German entrepreneur who has organized the idea into an all-encompassing “Barnum and Bailey goes to the Morgue” type event featuring naked, dead bodies engaged in all kinds of bizarre activities. Brought back to life as it were, in an extravaganza he calls Bodyworlds.
He presents his characters as medical wonders, revealing aspects of the body hitherto unseen by the public at large. They allow laymen and medical students alike an unprecedented view of its workings and construction. Bodyworlds he tells us, takes the endeavors of Vesalius and Leonardo to their ultimate conclusion. Blow-ups of their illustrations line the walls to confirm the idea.
It’s a claim that’s hard to refute. Few people have seen a complete stranger without their clothes on, even fewer, one without his or her skin on. Skin, particularly facial skin, defines an individual. To remove it renders them entirely anonymous, their bodies can be studied from an inch away without the slightest inhibition. A group of Spanish speaking ladies ahead of me demonstrated this by taking it in turns to squeeze the penis of one of the exhibits – then giggling hysterically afterwards. It’s possible a few artists and medical students will appreciate being able to see the origin of flexor carpi ulnaris, but the ladies seem to be more what the show is about. They’re also what make it unsettling.
As far as anatomical insights go, the dried out shrunken musculature only approximates its original form. It looks – and as the ladies can attest – feels like beef jerky – which basically it is – the human equivalent at least. It lacks moisture, warmth or any sense of vitality. Watching the women laughing alongside brings the fact sharply into focus. We are really nothing like this at all. The initial wonder and voyeuristic thrill is quickly replaced by a kind of despair.
Von Hagen’s efforts don’t reveal the wonder of the body so much as they evoke the sad inconsequence of it no longer having any-body in it: the vacated premises as indicative of life as the ruins of a burned out building. Painting it up and putting a flowerpot in the window, simply reinforces the idea. The effect is to divert our attention from the things that are there, to the things that aren’t, i.e. the original occupants. It prompts us to wonder how their bodies ended up in such a state.
We’re not told who they were, but we can assume they weren’t particularly ‘significant’. People of means don’t allow their earthly remains to be exploited in this manner, certainly not the kind of people in the audience. They are mostly diminutive bodies, suggesting ethnic types from places where trade of this kind is ethically less inhibited and more prompted by necessity. An ongoing anonymity, that further subtracts from the notion of celebrating life. Compounding the feeling are the sentimental posturings their bodies have been forced to adopt in their absence: demeaning portraits completely antithetical to the heroic statuary of people who do achieve ‘significance’ in their lifetimes.
Utilizing a complex embalming process, called “Plastination,” Von Hagens dismantles, distorts and rearranges his cadavers into fanciful ‘lifelike’ poses. To heighten the life/death “ambiguity,” as he puts it, he then adds various props – glass eyes for example, the same trick that makes stuffed animals appear life-like or children’s dolls. And as if they were dolls, the good doctor then adds wigs, hats, cigarettes and fake pubic hair to increase the ‘realism.’
A flayed corpse, described as “Winged Man” has been disassembled then reassembled in a way that stretches the body horizontally. In keeping with the title, the musculature has been detached and flared out to evoke the idea of flight. To heighten the illusion the arrangement has then been placed on a revolving turntable. In seeming contradiction to the idea however, it’s been topped off with a white fedora. A hat, we are told – “further narrows the gap between life and death.”
Even without props, the arrangement of many of the figures is equally sentimentally contrived.
One tableau is dedicated to the circulatory system. The Plastinated blood vessels alone remain to define the shapes of their former owners, a family group, in which the ‘wife’ has her arm around her ‘husband’s’ waist, and he supports ‘their child’ on his shoulders. A happy child clearly, since its two tiny thumbs are raised. Without question these three human beings were in no way related in life. Assembling their physical remains in this way engenders a complicated mix of feelings – none of them joyful. A human being defined by its blood vessels does prompt a kind of wonderment, but the remains of a dead child arranged like this immediately cancels it out. The voyeurism short-circuits, comes out the other side as it were.
The most blatantly kitsch and by virtue of her context, most titillating exhibit, is a pregnant woman – the star of the show without question. She and half a dozen fetuses in beakers have a room to themselves: an area designed and lit like a shrine. It suggests a place for spiritual contemplation – sex, birth and death are all present here.
We’re informed before entering that the woman we’re about to see, had a terminal illness that she knew could possibly claim her life and that of her child before she gave birth. In the likelihood of such an event, she had consented to donate herself and her child to be preserved for exhibition. It’s a poignant scene to envision: a woman simultaneously contemplating death and the joy of motherhood while a stranger anticipates the possibilities should the former be the case. The result is an appalling confluence of tragedy and opportunism.
We find her remains reclining on a steel table, her skin removed and her belly split open to reveal her hard discolored organs and gray unborn child. One arm has been placed behind her head like a woman lounging beside a swimming pool. The skin has been removed from her breasts but the erect nipples remain…
After that…everything pales by comparison.
• A flayed soccer player leaps to catch a real soccer ball with one hand while his organs fly in the opposite direction – a dilemma for any goalkeeper.
• A man whose musculature has been stretched to gigantic proportions pedals a suitably-enlarged, badly-built bicycle while wearing a badly-placed, normal-sized wig.
• Suspended on wires, the two halves of a skinless woman appear to have swum through an enormous invisible saw blade – sliced wig and pubic hair nevertheless remaining dutifully attached to her either side.
• A man runs to who knows where, clutching his diseased organs in his hands – possibly trying to figure out which display case to put them in. Blanched, Plastinated organs, and sexual parts abound, sliced and diced and arranged in cabinets like flea market ornaments.
And the final opus… a flayed man and a flayed horse whose corresponding body parts have been commingled for comparison, rear up together against a backdrop of flat, vertical slices of Plastinated corpse suspended on wires in the window. An artsy arrangement that takes advantage of the California sunlight to attempt a kind of new age stain glass effect, but on account of the heat, succeeds in producing an image of warped and distorted shish kebab ingredients from hell.
Beyond the apocalyptic horseman, right before the exit through the gift shop, a TV monitor finally explains how this has all been made possible. Accompanied by a Kraftwerk-type soundtrack evoking the ‘poignancy of man’s impermanence’, ‘his determination to know’, ‘the triumph of science’ etc., etc., cadavers are run through band saws, submerged in liquids, suspended in vacuum chambers, kneaded onto armatures and misted into permanence inside huge plastic tents. And finally the maestro himself – Gunther Von Hagens – makes his appearance. A ubiquitous figure tirelessly supervising every detail of the process: nudging an arm slightly higher, a testicle further to the left. Tipping a wig to a jauntier angle, perking a nipple to perfection. A renaissance figure in every sense of the word, the synthesis of science and art…
A man in a lab coat and black pork-pie hat.
Injecting plastic – a petroleum product – into corpses, and ‘resurrecting them’ is an appropriate folly for the times. Frank Zappa, who coined the term ‘plastic people’ is surely laughing in his grave. Regardless of the wonder of the process, it’s the image of Von Hagens that leaves the most lasting impression. A beef jerky sculpture park is hardly unsettling in the obvious sense but it’s not a happy place. The emotional decline while wandering through the exhibits is comparable to that experienced when watching a porno movie. The initial reaction to nakedness – which in this case has the added element of it being in the ‘flesh’ – is one of excitement, but the sensation quickly turns to a kind of despair; the feeling – and knowing – that something is missing.
Studying body parts is as much an indication of the transcendent nature of their function as the disassembled components of a clock are to the idea of time. The way in which they are presented doesn’t take us any closer to understanding, in fact it does the opposite. It generates a despair that focuses on the intangible, vulnerable nature of those being observed.
Like the bodies in porno movies, the bodies in Bodyworlds are the images of economic expediency, participants in a process of commodification from which they benefit little or nothing at all – compared to those who exploit them. Given that over three million people in Europe have already seen the show, at presumably the same fifteen bucks a pop, it’s interesting to speculate how much Von Hagens was willing to part with for the body of a mother and unborn child. More to the point, at what price would the good doctor himself be prepared to exhibit his own remains in such a manner? Skin removed, muscles stretched and flared…. penis erect, hands clutching dollar bills… his signature pork-pie hat “further narrowing the gap between life and death”…
In the unlikely event this was to happen, what title would he choose for himself?
Malcolm Mc Neill’s first project out of art school was a seven-year collaboration with writer William S. Burroughs. His two books about the experience were published at the end of last year.
His most recent exhibition of paintings was in August 2013 in New York.