Body Worlds 2 at the Museum of Science
Post #847 • August 8, 2006, 2:16 PM • 39 Comments
Although it produces nearly identical hand-wringing in different authors, it would be irresponsible not to address the moral issues surrounding Body Worlds 2. For those of you not following along, this is an exhibition of genuine human bodies and parts thereof on display, preserved using a process that replaces the fluids with plastics that harden enough to support themselves. I wouldn't challenge the feelings of anyone who thinks that this is too creepy to countenance. Although Gunther von Hagens, creator of the technique, insists that the bodies were obtained with the consent of their previous inhabitants, there is some dispute about this, and even more regarding the various knockoff exhibitions of the same kinds of objects. (Via a commenter calling himself China Sucks the life out of its Dead, along with the message, "I know you eat this stuff up. Enjoy," leaving me to infer that he takes issue with some of this.)
Obviously, these human specimens ought to come with known provenances, and the ones that don't ought not be displayed, although who should enforce such a thing I'm not sure. Especially since China is involved, the prospect that impoverished relatives could be selling the remains of their deceased, in a culture that practices ancestor worship and doesn't have the most transparent system of justice, is highly distasteful. But if freely given, I can't get worked up about it. Personally, I worry more about the horrors we visit upon living animals in the name of what people call eating well. I would ask anyone who has a problem with Body Worlds to consider that highly analagous structures go into a bacon double cheeseburger at your typical fast food death trap, and that we dispense untold suffering upon mammals built much like we are in the process. The exhibition had a colt and a camel on display if you're unsure. (Just so I beat Marc to it: Camel, I hear, tastes just like chicken.)
Is it art? No. It's hard to know what term to apply to Von Hagens's product, but "sculpture" isn't it. Yes, he signs little plaques on the pedastals and titles them, and they involve undeniable aesthetic considerations. But whatever he's doing falls in the realm of arts that do not produce art, such as medicine, theater lighting, fine baking, and the styling of hair. To consider it otherwise asks me to put human tissue in the same category as oil paint, and I refuse. That, indeed, would be nasty.
As scientific displays, though, they are fascinating, even if they are sometimes too arty to serve the purpose of visualization. One body is segmented in a drawer-like manner that clearly homages Dali. I wasn't impressed, but I imagine Dali would have taken it as high honor. Another, entitled The Angel, resembles one because of her leaping pose and her "wings," which have been formed by sawing through her posterior iliac crests and lifting her latissimus dorsi muscles away from her spine. Ostensibly, this is to expose the interior of the thorax from behind, a difficult thing to visualize, but, really, now.
I took greater interest in the more intact bodies peforming various physical activities - playing soccer, practicing yoga, dancing. One rather stunning display has a couple performing a figure skating maneuver, appropriately called a death spiral. (Come on, that's funny. Is this thing on?) This is a personal interest of mine - knowing about pancreases doesn't make my drawing better - but it was a wonderful opportunity to be able to study, say, the foreshortened deltoid as it attaches to the clavicle and scapula on the yoga figure, or the braid of gracilis, sartorius, and vastus medialis as they originate on the pelvis and femur. In perspective. On a figure kicking a soccer ball. Anyone interested in figuration owes it to himself to see this.
The study of anatomy has always been a fishy business. Leonardo risked excommunication. Albinus exhumed a hanged prisoner during the winter, suspended his body in a barn with hooks and lines, and preserved it for the convenience of his probably nigh-frozen engraver by wrapping it in vinegar-soaked paper. This continues in the same tradition that takes good taste and dear mores and throws them out the window. Humans have done worse things for the sake of science, art, and even entertainment. I think one can enjoy this exhibition cautiously, and one ought to consider doing so.