"Anatomical dissection gives the human mind an opportunity to compare the dead with the living, things severed with things intact, things destroyed with things evolving, and opens up the profoundness of nature to us more than any other endeavor or consideration."
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
This past Tuesday I saw Body Worlds & the Story of the Heart at the Buffalo Museum of Science. Body Worlds showcases Gunther von Hagen's technique of plastination, or preserving living tissue with plastic. In the exhibit, entire circulatory systems are in tact, intricate blood vessels, and minute capillaries that look like thin hairs covered in red acrylic paint. Individual tendons, white and thick, stretch from muscle to ridged muscle, all knit onto a bone frame. From one body, just the nerves are displayed--parts we seldom think of. In the center of the rooms individual organs lie in glass cases. Healthy, functional lungs are placed next to blackened and tumorous lungs, diseased hearts sit next to healthy hearts and enlarged hearts of athletes. The physical effects of smoking and obesity are emphasized.
Despite the excellent preservation, the bodies do not seem as real or disturbing as I anticipated them to be. Each full body is in a different creative pose, cut and separated to show some aspect of our internal organs. One body, the Cyclist, is cut in three vertical pieces. Her ovaries and uterus protrude from one of the slices and leave a negative space on the other side, showing the organ itself, how snugly organs fit together, and the complexity of each intertwined system. As well as the Cyclist, the Javelin-Thrower was presented, the Kneeling Lady, and the Praying Man. In the hands of the Praying Man rests a plasticized heart. It is as if he is holding it sacred, holding the heart to a higher level of understanding, power, and wonder.
Along with the bodies hang photographs of living people with quotations about the heart by various artists and poets. The line between our physical and emotional selves seems very distinct. Then we turned the corner and saw the Juxtaposed Couple.
Their shoulders are turned in, they lean towards each other, their arms are gently placed on the other, and the woman's head rests against her partner's. This piece gives us a clear shot of the brain, spinal cord, and lungs, yet is so tender. The physical and emotional fuse, as the piece conveys something more than muscles and bones.
The idea that these bodies used to be living and breathing freaks a lot of people out. The show brings up the question: what makes us who we are? All that constitutes our personality is not the difference in the thickness of our blood vessels or the shape of our gall bladders. Our bodies are incredible machines. But without consciousness, without perception, without memory and the ability to sense and make sense of the world around us, our bodies are just vehicles.
Anatomia del corpo humano, drawn by Juan Valverde de Amusco in 1559, shows a man holding his skin. According to Wikipedia, "The skin's distorted face has the appearance of a ghost or a cloud, suggesting that [his] spirit has been separated from, or peeled off of, the fleshy inner man." Gunther von Hagen recreated this anatomical sketch in an attempt to show that the skin is the largest organ in our body.
I enjoy controversy. I welcome anything that makes me think. Of course, this exhibit has received negative attention because of the "grotesque" manner in which our innards are displayed, the way some of the bodies were acquired (supposedly all the bodies were from consenting donors, although the copy-cat shows have been accused of using Chinese bodies without permission of the person and their family), and in many religious contexts the body is considered sacred and must be buried after death. Antigone, anyone? People were also upset when two bodies were positioned as if they were having sex, and museum visitors were uncomfortable with a pregnant woman on view, as well as a few fetuses in different stages of development. The pregnant woman would have been fascinating to see, but she was not at the exhibit that I went to. A few of my friends that went to Body Worlds said that she was the only body that made them queasy.
This show was one of the best things I've done this summer. I am finally able to piece together what I've learned from drawings and lecture and I can visualize all of the gushy crap inside of us. The educational value of the show was reason enough to buy a ticket, but the artful presentation made each piece even more beautiful.
"The older I get, the more I realize that death is normal and that it is life that is exceptional," said Dr. von Hagens. "I hope this exhibition will encourage people to strive to live with inspiration every day throughout their lives."