Monday, June 06, 2005

Salon has an article today about the traveling exhibits of plastinated human corpses that always stir people up wherever they go (you'll have to click through the day pass if you're not a subscriber -- sorry.) I went to see the original Body Worlds exhibit in London a few years ago, in a renovated brewery in the deepest depths of the East End. I was accompanied by a friend of mine (at the time) who was a fairly talented special make-up effects artist; he seemed like one of the more receptive people to see it with.

The expectation, of course, is that you're walking into a freak show -- you feel self-conscious buying your ticket, as if you're admitting how base your curiosities really are. Even having seen photographs, you wonder how grisly it's going to be -- these are, after all, actual human bodies on display; not models, not waxworks, not even dehumanized specimens. A lot of the bodies still have identifying features -- visible faces, eyes, tattoos; they don't look alive, but they still look very much like people. In reality, though, the exhibit starts off very gently -- here's a cross section of bone (still looking fresh and pink inside), here's a sample of a liver and a kidney, here's a brain. Then on to the for-your-own-good displays: here's what arteriosclerosis looks like; here's the lung of a lifelong smoker; this is how an alcoholic's cirrhotic liver ends up. And finally, you get into the artful stuff: entire human bodies (and a few animals) posed in such a way that major systems are on display in their entirety and in their original positions, muscles can be appreciated in (something very similar to) motion, and a certain kind of aesthetic beauty is maintained, and maybe enhanced. The idea, after all, is that the body is a work of art.

The centerpiece of the particular exhibit I saw was two plastinated men riding a plastinated horse (one of them holding out his own plastinated brain); even so, the most visually memorable image was of a large hare -- or at least a large hare's circulatory system, and nothing else. Just a heart and some assorted membranes and veins and arteries floating in a transparent box, in exactly the shape of the hare they once belonged to. It was absolutely stunning, and if I'd been a kid I'd have had nightmares for a week at least.

scary bunny

At the very end, we were given a chance to leave the exhibit before heading into the most gratuitous part (and the only part that actually did feel like a freakshow): we were led into a small white room that had clearly once served as a walkway over the street; we stood suspended thirty feet above the ground with nothing below us except pavement. And around the walls were maybe forty large jars containing various ancient specimens of prenatal deformaties: hydrocephaly, conjoined twins, severe spina bifida, babies with no brains at all. The guide said that these specimens had been traded to the exhibit in exchange for plastinated bodies to be used in various second-world medical schools; they were mostly very old (I'd seen several of them in books over the years), and were clearly the product of an entirely different scientific mindset. They were utterly different in tone than the rest of the exhibit, and had obviously been included just because they were there -- what the hell, why not?

The floating white room with the jars of dead babies was something I could easily have dreamed; even standing there I was struck by the surreality of it, and in truth that was the most interesting thing about the experience. The rest of the exhibit was actually a little... well, mundane. Almost a let-down, in fact. I found it difficult to think of those elaborately-staged displays as art (in spite of the obvious artifice), because human life and death are already so emotionally and intellectually loaded, it's hard to add any dimension to them that doesn't feel like an unnecessary, tacked-on intrusion. It was interesting from a scientific perspective, but the thing I primarily took away (apart from having my curiosity satisfied and a somewhat better idea of human anatomy) was that people are just meat, and meat pretty much looks like meat no matter what it came from. And that's cool, y'know, I love meat; some of my best friends are meat. But you can learn a lot of the same concepts on a walk through a butcher's if you're open-minded enough.
12:13 AM ::
Amy :: permalink