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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.

Comment

1.

alesh

August 8, 2006, 3:17 PM

Agreed. It hasn't made it down to Miami yet, mostly because various organizations have expressed moral concerns. I think those concerns rightly weigh heavier on potential presenters then on visitors. If it comes down, I'll see it for sure.

2.

China eats its young

August 8, 2006, 4:27 PM

None of this is really new...in fact medical schools have had these types of displays for 100s on years. I remember this place from when I lived in Philadelphia:

http://www.collphyphil.org/mutter_hist.htm

In 1858, Thomas Dent Mütter, retired Professor of Surgery at Jefferson Medical College , presented his personal collection of unique anatomic and pathological materials to The College of Physicians of Philadelphia . Our collection now boasts over 20,000 unforgettable objects. These include fluid-preserved anatomical and pathological specimens; skeletal and dried specimens, medical instruments and apparati; anatomical and pathological models in plaster, wax, papier-mâché, and plastic; memorabilia of famous scientists and physicians; medical illustrations, photographs, prints, and portraits. In addition, we offer changing exhibits on a variety of medical and historical topics.

Essentially my beef is with China, and its deplorable humans rights abuses. Yes, I eat chicken and I know the life and death of a chicken McMuffin is deplorable too.

3.

opie

August 8, 2006, 4:28 PM

Sorry. This stuff is wrong.

Or let me be "open minded" and say it is "wrong for me". It offends, me, pure and simple. Yes it does. Saying that Leonardo and Abinus etc messed with corpses or that we treat animals badly is so obviously beside the point it should not even be stated.

Which current trendy attitude will trump out here? if these were minority Americans there would be PC-induced screams like you never heard! And rightly so.

But, Chinese from China? They are over on the other side of the globe and who knows or cares what those Chinks do to each other, right? It's their business. So they sell their relatives. So they disinter graves. So they pick bodies up from the prisons. So what.

Having put that behind us, any little nagging doubts will be trumped by "I am open-minded and intellectually curious and I won't let a little queasiness get in my way"

These are the bodies of pickled people carved up and exaggerated and distorted and exhibited in whimsical ridiculous postures and attitudes for the delectation of the ghoul within us, pure and simple.

OK, I guess I am not so open-minded after all. It should offend you. There, I said it.

We are a primitive and irrational species. Civilization has a long way to go.

4.

Franklin

August 8, 2006, 4:36 PM

I said I wouldn't challenge the feelings of anyone who thinks that this is too creepy to countenance, and I stand by that. However, I do care quite a bit about what the Chinese are doing to each other, as I hope I made clear above.

5.

oldpro

August 8, 2006, 4:50 PM

I really don't think it is "too creepy to countenance", although it is creepy enough to keep me away, and I am not in a great rage about what the Chinese are doing to each other, wrong as it may be, and I really do not care about "moral issues" as a generality, I know about the Mutter Museum and have no problem with it and I am as much a hypocrite about the animals we eat as anyone else.

These are all other matters. This is very straightforward and clear and present: as far as I am concerned this particular display, right here and now, just as it is, is offensive.

6.

The Chinese Dissect Dissidents

August 8, 2006, 5:12 PM

I finally agree with the oldpro. I imagined that you would have appreciated this exhibition and I'm glad you don't.

Anatomical life drawing is important especially when done with a LIVING model.

This exhibiton, and the creepy German doctor [who was probably making lamp shades from Jews in a prior live] is the stuff of 21st century nightmares.

There is a "museum" in Guanajuato Mexico that displays the stiffened mummified corpses of people whose families could not continue paying the local cemetary tax...there is a room full of dead babies that will haunt you for a lifetime.

This current Disneyfied display of death is pure Chinese crap.

I'm suprised they don't have a disembowled figure doing Falun gong exercises.

Franklin you do not NEED to see this, you WANT to see this.

Respect for the dead is sign of a civilized society. Posing dead people in kooky positions for profit is very uncivilized.

7.

opie

August 8, 2006, 5:34 PM

Sometimes I still sign "oldpro" unconsciously even though I have now emasculated it down to "opie" to avoid some of the ageism.

So, Dissident, you may find youself agreeing or disagreeing with Opie also. Anyway, glad to see that you agree in this case.

Actually, I don't expect mych agreement on this,and it really doesn't matter that much because although I injected an "it should offend you" above it is really just a pure unrationalized expression of a direct reaction.

Disney indeed! That's appropriate. Grisly Disney. Disney dissected. Walt the Ripper.

I have a colleague who has made and exhibited a giant, bloody, murdered Mickey Mouse. I freely admit I loved it.

8.

Franklin

August 8, 2006, 6:39 PM

There's a chapel in Evora, Lisbon, decorated with the bones of 5000 monks and nuns. I didn't have a big problem with that either, although it wasn't a terribly normal introduction to Catholicism.

9.

Noah

August 8, 2006, 7:02 PM

OP expressed my response more precisely than I could have.. "just a pure unrationalized expression of a direct reaction." Thank goodness-often those responses are the benchmarks in my world.
I grew up around relics and odd little bits and pieces of dead saints. Unusual, maybe, but these slivers and parts were considered sacred and approached as such. I don't defend that practice but I do see it as different than what is now being displayed.

10.

Catholics eat and drink Christ Daily

August 8, 2006, 7:10 PM

Catholics = compassion and civilization. I don't think so.
But we shouldn't go there.

Were talking about some freaky quasi Death displaying profiteering Doctor and his cosy relationship with the deadly opressive Chinese Government that forces women to abort children in their last month of pregnancy, is opressing the country of Tibet openly for profit and raping its own environment while we sit and watch "Reality" television and surf the web.

You go Franklin. Give your dollars to these culture and life killers.

11.

Franklin

August 8, 2006, 7:12 PM

See, to me, that's bewildering. Displaying bodies for the purpose of showing what bodies look like at least adds up. Venerating the excised vocal cords of some saint, like I saw people do in Padua, strikes me as gruesome. I think these reactions, mine included, are totally instinctual and non-logical. Like Noah indicates, they probably are the product of what you grew up with.

12.

Jack

August 8, 2006, 7:13 PM

First off, this is not art, as Franklin noted. It's fancy taxidermy, used as a higly questionable ploy to garner the kind of attention inevitably received by such things. It's, at best, cynical gimmickry to draw in the crowd that used to go see circus freaks and the like. It may be human nature to be interested enough to pay to see it, but that doesn't make it unobjectionable--which it most certainly is. I wouldn't go see it if it was free. In other words, I essentially agree with OP. Those who wish may rationalize till the cows come home, but this is quite beyond the pale.

13.

Franklin

August 8, 2006, 7:35 PM

Catholics, first of all, if you keep changing your handle, it's going to be hard to have a discussion with you. See Advance the Conversation. Second, China is a complex society only tangentially involved with the above exhibition, on the face of it, and although your suspicions are appropriate, to link the above with forced abortions and the occupation of Tibet is too broad of a brush. Those are problems that deserve to be attacked on their own fronts, and stem respectively from horrendous big-boss-style local governments trying to meet arbitrary bureaucratic quotas, and totalitarian expansionism. The environmental problems are coming up from a broad desire, the world over, to enjoy the standard of living that we do. The article that you (?) cited describes a separate problem - amoral hypercapitalism. That's a valid criticism. Third, is nothing in your possession right now made in China, or from Chinese parts, or financed with Chinese loans? If so, you too are doing business with China. I won't tell you to stop. I doubt one can.

14.

opie

August 8, 2006, 8:10 PM

Yes, Noah, stick to those "benchmarks". They are really all you have, whatever you are dealing with. Otherwise you are just riding in someone else's parade.

15.

Guilty of too many pseudonyms

August 8, 2006, 10:46 PM

Has anyone noticed the recent trend in television programs such as "CSI Whatever" that they have been showing more and more dead people straight on and in full view? The more realistic and revolting the better...why has our culture the need to consume such images?

Earlier I was going off abit too rabidly about China, and yes it is impossible to not touch things made in China, and I do sincerely admire the I-Ching, Tai-Chi Chuan, and Kung Pao Chicken.(not in that order).

I fail to understand why the world stands by silently as they/we/China abuses human rights and fucks the environment and sponsers evil German psycho taxidermists.

Disturbing.

16.

Franklin

August 8, 2006, 11:07 PM

Well, you don't have to be silent. Human Rights Watch and the World Wildlife Fund have active chapters devoted to China. I'm a fan of the Sathirakoses-Nagapradeepa Foundation. Get involved, learn, contribute. Turn off that CSI crap. I believe in solving political issues via politics and art problems via art, and not mixing them up. Go to it.

17.

George

August 9, 2006, 12:51 AM

"...why has our culture the need to consume such images?"

Are you serious?

The horror of death without the pain.

Cheap B horror movie thrills go with the age.

18.

jordan

August 9, 2006, 1:00 AM

Spiritual and ethical/moral concerns aside - we can learn things that we all should understand about our physical similarities, our understanding of beauty, balance, grace and special characteristics which have shaped our collective rituals.
"Bodies" and/or "Body Worlds" have impact non-the-less.

19.

Marc Country

August 9, 2006, 1:45 AM

Damien Hirst and his shark collector must be kicking themselves that they didn't think to use 'plastination' instead of formaldehyde. I suppose it would be the least he could do for his poor sucker, er, I mean patron, to whip up a new great white to replace the rotten old fish, but this time embalmed in silicone, encased in acrylic resin... maybe kicking a soccer ball.

I had a chance to see one of these 'plastination' exhibits in SF last year. I admit I was curious, but, I balked at the idea of paying money for it. Is there another outfit that does this stuff too? A 'Ringling Brothers' to compete with von Hagens' 'Barnum and Bailey'? I think I could get on board with Franklin, if it wasn't just so damned crass.

Like most commenters, I think that in theory, the idea of dispaying bodies could be ok, if it is clear that those are the wishes of the deceased, and if some sense of dignity is preserved (which clearly seems to not be the case here). I still think the goofy poses are in bad taste no matter what the circumstances, just as they would be if they were the result of a med-student prank in a gross anatomy lab (which, of course, happens all the time, no doubt... doctors have sick senses of humour).

What can you say, though... we're all hypocrites to some degree when it comes to morality. The best you can do is to be honest with yourself when you see a line you know you ought not cross.

And as far as the taste of Camels goes, I wouldn't know... I don't smoke.

20.

Marc Country

August 9, 2006, 2:25 AM

Never mind my question about the other 'corpse circuses' out there, Franklin... I found a link to a story about the show in SF I was talking about, and yeah, it seems to be one of the "knockoff exhibitions" you mentioned... I'm glad I didn't fork over any of my money to them.

21.

Marc Country

August 9, 2006, 2:39 AM

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.

From a 1998 review by Roberta Smith in the NYT:
Also powerful is an environment by the Viennese actionist Hermann Nitsch: a room lined with canvases painted with blood, photographs of gruesome performances, liturgical garments stained with blood, relics and sets of surgical instruments, as if the artist were trying to make the ritual of communion a corporeal reality.

Needless to say, there are many artists out there who have found the jump from oil paint to human tissue pretty easy.

Then, there's "The Passion of the Christ", but perhaps that deserves its own post.
Hmm, on second thought, perhaps not.

22.

opie

August 9, 2006, 7:45 AM

Yes, Marc, that unmentionable movie also had our fellow crreatures acting weirdly, sending Sunday school classes to wallow in every little sadistic detail. Inhuman behavior jumps up in all its glory whenever we supply a good rationalization for it.

Things like this make one long for the proverbial desert island.

23.

pseudonym

August 9, 2006, 9:28 AM

Franklin:

Don't get me wrong I am involved Artistically, Environmentally, Politically and on a Cellular level...I am not looking for suggestions on where to devote my energies, and I don't watch CSI Crapola.

My question is why has our culture grown so fond of looking death right in the face and smelling its breath? on television, in "museum" exhibitions and at every turn?

and yes, George I know "Cheap B horror movie thrills go with the age" but in the last five years the realism has been raised. I guess High definition television without High definition Death is useless. George Romero's Night of the Living Dead looks like Disney when compare to current network prime time programming.

Art Politics Life Death it's all intertwined. You can solve political problems with artistic solutions and artistic problems through politics.

24.

Jack

August 9, 2006, 9:43 AM

It had crossed my mind even before Marc noted it that this human taxidermy business is right up the alley of the likes of Damien Hirst, which is all the more reason to reject it (not that more reasons were needed). I suppose it's only a matter of time before some "serious" artist resorts to this expedient, and there will be "major" collectors willing to buy it (especially if the cheap shock value is amped up further, as in cadavers having some sort of sex). We've come a long way, all right.

25.

George

August 9, 2006, 9:46 AM

Re #23

The "realism is raised" because it’s what the audience wants.

Art Politics Life Death it's all intertwined. You can solve political problems with artistic solutions and artistic problems through politics.

The first sentence yes but show me an example where art solved a political problem.

26.

Franklin

August 9, 2006, 9:48 AM

Or where politics solved an art problem.

27.

pseudonym

August 9, 2006, 10:00 AM

for example
Political problems with artistic solutions: Bread and Puppet theater
Artistic problems through politics: Government grants to Artists

28.

Franklin

August 9, 2006, 10:04 AM

What political problem did B&P solve? Not address - solve.

Not having enough money is not an artistic problem, just a problem that a lot of artists have. If grants solve artistic problems, they do it by proxy.

29.

catfish

August 9, 2006, 10:22 AM

What political problem did B&P solve? Not address - solve.

Exactly! The ratio between political problems artists-in-general "address" and those they "solve" is tiny. Professional politicians, bad as many of them are, have a ratio that is magnitudes larger.

On the other hand, artists don't create many political problems ether.

30.

opie

August 9, 2006, 11:16 AM

And saying "everything is intertwined" is just another one of those trendy relativistic ways of saying nothing profoundly.

Of course everything is intertwined. So what.

31.

Marc Country

August 9, 2006, 11:38 AM

Franklin, can we get back to talking about REAL art, like bronze statues of Rocky Balboa, perhaps?

32.

Senor Trash

August 9, 2006, 11:46 AM

Long-time lurker...though I might add something...

If these were molds, or artistic renderings, would people have the same desire, almost pornographic in curiosity? If these were plastic forms, never alive, would there be a debate? No, of course not.

I feel that most folks are checking it out to "see dead people", like a circus freakshow of decanted still births and deformed "monsters". No different than the guy who buys the desicatted "frogs playing golf" at a Florida truck stop.

To put a twist on this, it really shows our distance from death, and how sanitized we feel these days to the process. Perhaps folks go through a mild catharsis, thinking "better him than me", a release, however small, of thinking "this is a dead person, in a pose as if they were still alive. Could be me. Glad it is not.".

Other cultures have a better grip on the spectre of Death, and I would be curious if this would be as popular of an exhibit within a culture that sees death close-up more frequently.

Dig up your dead!!

(and everyone knows, if you want real controversy, do it with cats and dogs.)

33.

pseudonym

August 9, 2006, 1:16 PM

Franklin states:

"I believe in solving political issues via politics and art problems via art, and not mixing them up."

Before this can be discussed you really need to define your terms:

What are "art problems"? not being able to mix the right color green? or properly draw a hand? or obtain funding? or get a scholarship?

Defining political issues could take years.

opie smugly states "Of course everything is intertwined. So what."

It is produced; therefore the other is produced.
It is extinguished; therefore the other is extinguished.
It exists; therefore the other exists.
It does not exist; therefore the other does not exist.

Read up on the buddhist theory of "dependent origination" and get back to me.

Franklin's comment "I believe in solving political issues via politics and art problems via art, and not mixing them up" I feel is narrow minded.

I can't carry on with this thread much longer.

Enjoy looking at the dead bodies. If this is something you really need to see, go to India and visit the burning ghats in Calcutta or visit rural Tibet and spend some time with the body choppers, who dismember bodies and feed the remains to vultures performing Sky Burials.

The Germanic death kitsch actually now sounds pretty interesting.

I look forward to when you next post some pretty flowers.

34.

opie

August 9, 2006, 1:51 PM

Art and politics mix sometimes, Pseudo, usually to the advantage of neither, in my experience

Getting into cosmological Bhuddist discussions about the interrelationships is way out in the realm of mystical generality and doesn't interest me much, smug or not. I like specifics.

35.

pseudonym

August 9, 2006, 2:49 PM

i think you meant to say....

The entrance in the cosmologiquesbesprekingen Bhuddist of correlation is obscurement the street within outside in and with many
interests, rentekoninkrijk of generality or n I keep of definite examples.

36.

opie

August 9, 2006, 3:27 PM

You are right, Pseudo. Well put.

37.

pseudonym

August 9, 2006, 4:54 PM

[Make sense. Non-sequitur posts... will get terminated with extreme prejudice. - F.]

38.

Mother

August 10, 2006, 6:09 PM

Throughout human history, people have treated the human body with reverence in some way. Whether buried in an ancient cave, or presented on a platform for vultures to consume, humans have not just discarded in the garbage another human being who has died. From our primordial beginnings we have understood that a (sacred?) living soul inhabited that body.

A medical student dissects a body in seriousness—to study it to create a good in the world. And the person who donates his/her body to such a cause understands that, and expects the body to be treated with appropriate dignity and respect.

Whether with the permission of the person displayed or not, the display of human bodies in an exhibition where most of the viewers are not serious students, panders to the lowest of human emotions, and debases the humanity of all of us.

39.

Marc Country

August 11, 2006, 1:49 AM

For me, this issue really brings to the fore the closeness between moral and aesthetic considerations... do we recoil from these displays because they are "wrong", or because they are in "bad taste"?

It seems that much of our revulsion is related to 'soft tissue', specifically. I doubt we would feel the same if these were all merely bleached skeletons.

I also think that the object itself (flayed human corpse) would seem less 'morally' questionable if they were not posed so theatrically (or, is it just the bad taste again, the fact that the 'theatrics' is so clearly 'cheap', cheesy, 'tasteless'?)....

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