Körperwelten: Body Worlds Reaches Out

The new exhibit peels back the layers of issues concerning medical ethics, morality, health & human dignity

In von Hagens' Körperwelten, human machinery is on display | Photo: Kurt Kracher/NHM

In von Hagens' Körperwelten, human interaction is on display | Photo: Kurt Kracher/NHM

In von Hagens' Körperwelten, human machinery is on display | Photo: Kurt Kracher/NHM

The exhibit shows visitors the body at different life stages and in sickness | Photo: Kurt Kracher/NHM

In von Hagens' Körperwelten, human machinery is on display | Photo: Kurt Kracher/NHM

In von Hagens' Körperwelten, human machinery is on display | Photo: Kurt Kracher/NHM

Cadavers captive at the Naturhistorisches Museum through 11 August | Photo: Kurt Kracher/NHM

“One can tell the morals of a culture by the way they treat their dead.”  Benjamin Franklin

Cadavers captive at the Naturhistorisches Museum through 11 August | Photo: Kurt Kracher/NHM

Cadavers captive at the Naturhistorisches Museum through 11 August | Photo: Kurt Kracher/NHM

I first saw one of Gunther von Hagens’ Körperwelten (Body Worlds) exhibitions more than ten years ago. The figure I remember most was controversial: a cross-sectional cut of a woman bearing an almost finished pregnancy. It was the double tragedy of a deceased mother and her almost born child.

But while the figure was poignant, the composition was open to question because woman and child were reclining in a seeming parody of a Renaissance nude. Vienna’s current exhibition has moved on considerably from its contentious beginnings.

 

Aging with dignity

The player is leaning precariously to his left in a power-up, gearing for the jump-shot. The ball is on the rebound and just out of his hand. The left arm is stretched, fully extended, like a javelin thrower toward the basket. His mouth is wide open, his tongue wanton in anticipation.

But the slam-dunk will not come, no lay-up will find the rim or backboard; not even a brick, just an air-ball.

The exhibit shows visitors the body at different life stages and in sickness | Photo: Kurt Kracher/NHM

The exhibit shows visitors the body at different life stages and in sickness | Photo: Kurt Kracher/NHM

The basketball player is not on his home ground. There is no hoop, no one to pass to, no court either. He’s in a glass case, for all intents and purposes, hermetically sealed. It is a teaser. If he were playing basketball he’d have fallen over by now.

He is in fact a sculpture of sorts. And while he is physically off-centre, aesthetically, his composition is well balanced, a modern Discobolus of Myron of sorts.

But our protagonist is flayed. His skin has been peeled off. The stripped man’s muscles are displayed in antagonist and synergist authenticity.

His sinews are stretched in bathos but stunted in execution. And above his still-intact eyebrows, his skull is lifted back like a basketball cap laying open his brain. So much for those rumours of NBA players not having any.

Perhaps this isn’t the place to be jocular? It is clear this young man died in his prime, at his physical peak. And while there is no hint of a personal life, death must have come as a surprise. He became a splendid specimen.

In 2013, it seems the educators and public relations people have Gunther von Hagen’s ear. This latest exhibition, Körperwelten & The Cycle of Life, has a whole new spin. What I remember being a concourse through a cast of contestable caricatures is now a more considered collection.

While the cadavers are still here, they are placed in a much broader, more educational context. If there is any remnant sensationalism, then it is softened at the beginning by a direct appeal to any detractors.

The exhibition tackles the issue of human dignity at the outset. Any “whole body plastinates” had donated their bodies to the cause. Sources account for snippets of information, such as women being less squeamish donating their bodies than men. The figures even reveal what reasons people have for being donors.

Most feel they want to leave their body to some sort of “worthwhile purpose” or are impressed some way or other with plastination. Most donors are from Germany and close to 60 per cent of the bequeathed bodies are over the age of 60.

 

The philosophy of preservation

Plastination is the process that Gunther von Hagen developed in 1977. Initially, that old standby, formaldehyde is used for “fixation”, where apart from preventing decomposition, the process allows the body to be moulded and bent into the required shape of our basketball player, or the lithe gymnast and svelte female archer who share perpetuity in the exhibition.

Next, a vacuum process drains the biofluids and fats (lipids), drawing the liquid polymers in behind to replace them. The bodies are then manipulated and positioned once again. Lastly, the plastic is cured, or baked, by ultraviolet light to harden it.

Plastination has brought us further than the philosopher Jeremy Bentham could go, leaving his head and skeleton preserved in a wooden cabinet he christened the Auto-icon and from which he presides over the annual meeting of the Trustees of the University College of London.

The social reformer had a knack for such nomenclature, coining, among others, the better known Panopticon. While the art of preservation is as ancient as conserves and mummies, Bentham’s neglected body was padded out with hay and is dressed in his own clothes to this day.

None of the bodies in this exhibition are clothed. Over 200 dismemberments are exhibited in a narrative bridging conception and embryology to adolescence, the wear and tear of life, into our senior years and ultimate death.

It doesn’t become a memento mori, but rather promotes disease prevention and an examined life quoted on by religious and secular luminaries such as the Dalai Lama, Mark Twain and Khalil Gibran and texts such as the Rabbinic Talmud.

From philosophical musings to prompting mindful, healthy living, we descend momentarily into pathology. While the cigarette-blackened lungs are nothing compared to the graphic warnings on Australian cigarette packets, it is interesting to see and hear the reactions to the wide range of maladies exhibited: the worn out joints, obesity and cirrhosis, hernias, cysts and ulcers. “Seeing my own affliction helped somehow,” a friend commented.

Certainly, the exhibition brings a personal awareness and appreciation of the intricacy of your own body that stays with you long after, including a “sealed section” of two suspended fornicators in flagrante delicto – sensitively sequestered with ample warning of its whereabouts.

These “wholebody plastinates” are removed from “the sphere of individual, private mourning” in this anonymous public display. But how appropriate are three figures playing cards? Have these once-humans lost dignity? The Talmud quote offers: “We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are!”

As Bentham might concur, let each individual be the judge “as benefactors to the human race” of the “elegance and taste” of Von Hagen’s Körperwelten & das Lebenszyklus. The exhibition is certainly entertaining, and educational. For some it appears to be reassuring. For me, I think it has lost its initial controversy.

In von Hagens' Körperwelten, human interaction is on display | Photo: Kurt Kracher/NHM

In von Hagens’ Körperwelten, human interaction is on display | Photo: Kurt Kracher/NHM

 

The skin we live in

Just beyond the exit is another Naturhistorisches Museum exhibition, the “hominidenevolution”: human evolution. Here is a Homo erectus fisherman, forensically reconstructed in minute detail – not a follicle of body hair out of place – which reassures me I’m less Neanderthal than I feel.

As artificial as he is, he inspires more human feeling than the dissections I’ve just turned away from. There is something about his looking more comfortable in his skin. He is not a deconstruction. He is an imaginary synthesis, animated by the imagination of his forensic creator.

Just a little further out there’s the animated dinosaur that scares the wits out of children. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before Körperwelten too becomes animated – like Frankenstein’s monster? Or perhaps, rather than depending on donors, body parts will be grown for the purposes of plastination?

Where once our ancestors might have eaten their dead or left them discarded by the wayside, they soon took to burying them and visiting their tombs. They were preserved for the processes of grieving, awaiting Last Judgments, for occult passages through mysterious underworlds or – like Walt Disney – cryogenically frozen, in the hope of a reconditioned model.

Now we plastinate. But “even if the Thing could be caught,” Nabokov wrote, “why should anybody… wish the phenomenon to lose its curls, its mask, its mirror?” Man the Machine is reduced to “a finite mind peering at the iridescence of the invisible.”

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