Tuesday, March 08, 2005
Bodyworlds at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
Yesterday, I was haunted, challenged, and educated; and had my eyes opened to a genuinely new vision of the human physical body.

But first, let's step back about two years ago, to when I'd first read of Gunther von Hagens' Bodyworlds [also known as Körperwelten in its original incarnation in Germany] exhibition of human cadavers preserved by his revolutionary "plastination" process, which allows them to be displayed and posed in varying states of dissection. There was (and still is) considerable controversy surrounding this scientific and artistic exhibit; and I must admit that I once found myself thoroughly repulsed by the concept, on both visceral and ethical levels.

Somewhere in my primal deeply-held fears the idea of having people donate their bodies for the purpose of having their flayed, exposed, expanded, modified - not to mention creatively arranged - corpses seen by thousands millions of gawking strangers struck me as...well, unthinkable. After considering my prejudices, I realized that my initial negative reactions were the result of decades of horror-film cliches, congealed with the basic human fears of what can happen to one's mortal remains after death. A few weeks ago, I learned that Bodyworlds was coming to Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry - a literal hop and skip away from the University of Chicago - and I decided to take the plunge. However, I must admit: I'd managed to shed much of my previous cadaverophobia in the intervening months before walking into the grand hall for our afternoon tour, and what little remained was dispelled by a sense of admiration for the people who had chosen to give their bodies - so that now so many may see and learn from what was previously reserved for a select few.

As visitors caught their first up-close views of von Hagens' plastinates, many betrayed signs of the their instinctive reactions of disbelief, discomfort, bewilderment - but also wonder and delight. The crowd was strikingly diverse. Groups of African-American teens, bestudded college-age Goths, and elderly foreign couples rubbed shoulders with small Asian boys in matching oversized Illini football jerseys. Even small children, whose attention spans one would expect to barely encompass a 30-minute TV show, remained raptly hushed and intrigued for the approximately two hours it takes to see all 200 plastinations.

Overheard: "I have to keep reminding myself these are real bodies..." "You know, these [translucent slices of human brain in square resin casings] would make the most twisted kitchen tiles!" Strangely, even toddlers seem intrigued by the bodies. As a very pregnant mother holding her small daughter in her arms stood in front of a pregnant female plastinate with its abdomen dissected, the little girl exclaimed while pointing at the fetus, "Look! A baby!" Bodyworlds is the ultimate in "anatomical correctness": double takes abound as even the most jaded-looking viewer first contemplates the frankness of skinned, expanded dissections of male and female bodies.

Then I get it. Much of the discomfort comes from the jarring, unexpected intimacy we are afforded when looking at a piece such "The Teacher," where a skinless male plastinate "smiles" toothily in a chalk-in-hand pose (a German version of the Bodyworlds tourguide cheekily placed as an "inside joke" in his left hand), writing on an unseen blackboard as his spine, arteries and veins, genitalia, muscles, grinning teeth and lidless eyeballs greet the onlooker without the slightest hint of embarrassment or false modesty. When you look straight-on at the eye-level square white chalk in the body's hand, and stare at the "Teacher"'s dissected face, the effect is mesmerizing; you really have to remind yourself continually that these were once living, breathing people prior to their transformation - and each time you remember, you feel a brief inevitable pang of emotion.

Remember, the majority of the plastinations are mounted open-air, not behind glass; one mingles in closer proximity with the dead here than one would with the living at a cocktail party, and they don't mind if you stare. Though viewers are warned by numerous signs, "do not touch" - one obviously could.

The bodies are mounted in very functional, minimal surroundings, with low-key brick, stone and metal display areas lit by small focused halogen lamps. The effect is both coldly clinical and esthetically pleasing. Separating the various areas are hanging maroon banners containing philosophers' pointed historical quotations on life and death:
"Get used to the idea that Death should not matter to us, for good and evil are based on sensation. Death, however, is the cessation for all sensation. Hence, Death, ostensibly the most terrifying of all evils, has no meaning for us, for as long as we exist, Death will not be present. When Death comes, then we will no longer be in existence." --- Epicurus

"Death is neither good nor evil, for good and evil can only be something that actually exists. However, whatever is of itself nothing and which transforms everything else into nothing will not at all be able to put us at the mercy of fate."
--- Seneca
Perhaps one of the most enlightening aspects of Bodyworlds are its full-body and partial plastinates of disease processes. While no obvious traumatic or violent injuries are shown, the plastination process shows with stark wordless clarity the blackened smoker's lung, the plaque-ridden artery, and the blood-filled brains and hearts of stroke and cardiac victims. Translucent plastinates of virtually every organ system illuminate and demystify the realities of cancer and degenerative disease like no other educational aid I've seen.

More than a day later, I'm still going over the images in my head and processing what I've encountered. While I would caution that those with genuinely delicate sensibilities might want to acquaint themselves from a distance first (perhaps through the Bodyworlds books or DVD), there is nothing in Bodyworlds I would call genuinely horrific or frightening.

That said, as I mentioned earlier, the dissections will likely stir up old images and associations, and the more you've seen in your life, the more preconceptions you will come across that require tending. Some of the "exploded" plastinates recall Gary Baseman's "popping skeletons," and one piece in particular, the Winged Man, looks uncannily like the Hannibal Lecter-gutted "spread-eagle" policeman's corpse in The Silence of the Lambs, complete with a Lecter-esque white Panama with black rim band jauntily propped on the cadaver's head. Bodyworlds is disturbing at times, yes; but I can also see that people who lived in the ages prior to commonplace human cadaveric dissection would find any sight of human inner working shocking.

More than almost any other exhibit I've ever seen, I think Bodyworlds has the unusual potential to engage our collective subconscious and fascinate all through its never-before-seen revelation of the uniting human substance we all share beneath our differing skins.