“Is the cadaver dead?” muses Newsweek’s David Noonan. In today’s high-tech world, observes the critic, sophisticated images on CD-ROMs and pre-dissected parts (prosections), coupled with the emergence of genomics and neuroscience, have reduced medical education’s reliance on the procurement of human remains. While possibly redundant in medicine, the corpse has found a new life in a number of recent art exhibitions that focus on the bridge between art and medicine. Of these shows, “Body Worlds” most lays claim to the cadaver.
“Body Worlds” is a traveling exhibition of human and animal body parts that are preserved through a process called plastination. In 1977 Gunther von Hagens discovered that if he placed human remains in a vacuum, drew out body fluids and fat, and introduced reactive polymers, he could stop decomposition. In Hagens’ hands, the traditional physician’s “gory rite of passage” becomes a skilled craftsman’s practice of preservation and display. From Berlin to Brussels, Japan to London, families, friends, and even medical professionals quietly work their way through exhibits of human cross-sections, anatomical charts, artistic reproductions, and crowd-pleasing whole-body plastinates. To enter “Body Worlds” is to cross the threshold into a posthuman Eden—a surreal “paradise” of silent figures, cement floors, and lush tropical plants.
Opinions of the show, which is currently at London’s Atlantis Gallery, are plainly divided. Supporters describe the staged tableaux as art—a concept supported by the figures themselves. The exploded musculature of a running male evokes Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913), the flayed seated chess player reprises Duchamp’s 1960s Philadelphia Museum performance, and the thinly sliced transparent body sections mimics Damien Hirst’s spectacular displays of segmented animals. Even Hagens’ distinctive accessory, his black fedora, conjures up art world notable Joseph Beuys. Others praise the show’s educational value, which Hagens also underscores. He includes color reproductions of Vesalius’ famous 16th century illustrated medical text and, in interviews, states his aim is to educate lay people on the mysteries of the human body, make “the dead lifeful again,” and end the elitism of medical professionals. To further promote his cause, Hagens performed England’s first public dissection in 170 years this November. Rather than assuaging his critics, the event only exacerbated their ire. Detractors describe Hagens’ plastinates as Barbie-doll or Frankenstein manifestations. They compare Hagens to local modern-day “body snatchers:” British artist Anthony Noel-Kelly who stole body parts from the Royal College of Surgeons in 1998 and Alder Hey Children’s Hospital doctors who illegally harvested body organs for scientific study in 2001. They argue that instead of educating “Body Worlds” commodifies the corpse.
In the end, debates over art, malpractice, education, and entertainment merely deflect what’s really on display in “Body Worlds”—a 21st century shift in our relation to death and human remains. Outside of funeral rites, public displays of corpses have historically only occurred during moments of great anatomical discovery. In the past relatives went to great lengths to keep loved ones off dissecting tables. Today, however, many willingly submit. According to reports, thousands who have seen the show bequeath their remains to Hagens’ institute. While many cite a desire to advance human knowledge, tap into a new form of “immortality,” and circumvent fears of being buried, their donations speak more to a culturally primed desire for a posthuman existence—still-to-be-fulfilled promises of medical advances and still-to-be-realized fantasies of Hollywood cinema. But what is the future of Hagens’ displays? Will “aesthetic learning exhibitions” be established in major cities? Is plastination a fad or will it find a corporate sponsor and, as one of my colleagues suggests, become absorbed into mass-market funerary rites?