Plastic Fantastic

The creepy Dr. Gunther Van Hagens has finally brought his Body Worlds 2 exhibition of plastinated human bodies to Baltimore. It opened at the Maryland Science Center in February. Already, members of the press and media seem to be kicking up the usual, predictable fuss. What people find confusing and disturbing about the Body Worlds exhibition, it seems, is that the plastinated cadavers are displayed outside a familiar context, which makes it difficult to say for sure whether we visitors should consider the exhibition as science, art, or some kind of freak show.

It’s worth remembering that in more traditional contexts, there’s nothing surprising or disturbing about the sight of preserved human bodies. Coroners, morticians, and medical examiners work with cadavers every day; their access to the secret world beneath the skin is simply taken for granted. For those who are called upon to conduct or witness autopsies as part of their profession, there’s nothing remotely taboo about blood vessels, nerve channels, or the muscular circuitry of the body. Those studying any kind of human science are soon familiar with anatomical secrets, from real life as well as models, diagrams, and illustrations in medical textbooks.

Significantly, Von Hagens admits to a personal vendetta against those authorities that believe in keeping anatomical viewing rights within the professional scientific community. He’s right, of course. We should all be able to know what goes on in our own bodies, under our own skin – if we want to, of course. (Not all of us do).

Still, it’s only recently that the scientific community had had a monopoly on the display of body parts. In the Renaissance, for example, the Cabinet of Curiosities was a staple of both private and public collections, and often featured preserved anatomies, bones, and fetuses, sometimes posed in grotesque tableaux. A brief glance at the history of art reminds us how commonplace is the display of human body parts, from Leonardo Da Vinci’s studies of the human skull to La Specola in Florence, which contains a series of beautiful models very similar to the real human bodies on display in Body Worlds, except that those in La Specola are painstakingly hand-made from wax. Much more recently, The National Library of Medicine’s Visible Human Project sliced the frozen corpse of a 39-year-old prison inmate into hundreds of paper-thin sheets and photographed them to build a visual atlas of the body.

Watching real dead bodies being stripped of their flesh may not be most people’s idea of Saturday night at the movies, but nervier souls with a healthy morbid streak should check out the following three documentaries, all of which are far more vivid and disturbing than anything Gunther Van Hagens has to offer: Fred Wiseman’s 1971 32-minute autopsy film The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh’s 2003 documentary A Certain Kind of Death, and Thierry Zeno’s Of the Dead (1981), which also contains footage of an entire autopsy.

Then there are Damien Hirst’s split cows and pickled sharks, which beg the question: case, why are dissected human bodies considered to be so shocking, while few of us are disturbed by the idea of taxidermy? Are not animals also individuals with unique identities, just like human beings? If you’re not shocked by the idea of mounting a dead animal’s head on the wall, why should you be shocked by Body Worlds 2?

For that matter, have you ever taken a look inside a slaughterhouse? Gunther Van Hagens, eat your heart out.