Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Body Worlds

"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."


  1. i just have to disagree that this show is art in any way. i hardly believe it's science either...and which is it, that it is trying to be? (i saw it last year.)

    in the exhibit, itself, the 'science' aspect seemed thrown together as an add-on, in order to make it 'educational' (when it was lacking)
    this guy played with the bodies (his medium) just as i would play with my paint.
    there has never been any confirmation that the bodies he used were donated willingly either. in fact, the bodies that i saw, all looked shockingly similar and small-framed (of asian decent)...i don't believe him at all. he's a total creep...there was a whole 20/20 3-night special on him last should watch it, if you can find it.

    as a last note, he was not allowed to show at any of the major art museums in the u.s. because of the nature in which he 'played with the bodies'. the science stuff WAS thrown in at the last minute because he tried a different pitch to a different kind of a museum for his tour.
    in other words, he failed as an artist (the artists and art museums said it wasn't 'art' and in fact, shunned him) he tried some tag-on material and called it 'science'.
    as i've heard and read, that is the truth.

    this is your blog and all, and i'm sorry i busted in on it like this...but i really wish everyone would stop glorifying the guy who plays with executed asian prisoner's dead bodies.
    'the body plant' where they take them in poland is hardly sanitary or respectful of human remains...seriously watch 20/20 from last year.
    (maybe it was dateline?)

    i personally see no merit in his work, scientifically or artistically. i see it/him as a freakshow. and it's personally offensive to me that he makes so much money off of this: the exchange of life and death.

  2. i'll definitely check out 20/20. thanks for your comments

  3. Well I do have to say that I saw Body Worlds and was completely fascincated by it. I am going to school for nursing and am a hunter. Preparing a deer is quite different than a human and in trying to preserve the meat of a deer you do not get to experience the beauty of how the body works. Time is of the essence.

    As an EMT, I have read and studied about the heart, learned how the body functions, but could not fully understand how intricate and beautiful our bodies actually are. It took Dr. von Hagens Body Worlds to show me truely how the nerves, arteries, veins, organs, and every other aspect of the body, how they function and their necessity to life as we know it.

    Our bodies are beautiful and I highly recommend this exhibit to anyone in the health related field because it is difficult to learn how the body actually works from a book. The visual is magnificent. And really puts a retrospect on what things can do to our bodies if we are unwise with decisions that ultimately can harm us.

    I was once involved in my high school's art program, so I know very little about art. I have been to museums, science and art, and as beautiful as paintings are, they are a 2-D expression by the artist. Although I do not consider Dr. von Hagens work to be art, he creates an expression from the audience. Art is in the eye of the beholder.

    For those who have seen Body Worlds, there is just this wonder of how the body actually works, but another wonder my friends and I came up with is how the cadavers are suspended in their glass crates. There are no wires, no podiums, no stands, and yet these bodies seem almost alive in their movements. The 2 figure skaters, the man lifting the woman, were only held up by one blade of the man's skate. The balance is completely incredible. Although not traditional "art", the display is a form of art and science to me.

    Now I have never seen the broadcast of Dr. von Hagens on television, but I understand why Shana Goetsch is upset. I am not an expert in science or art, I am who I am, and believe what I feel is important. Scientifically, based on the processes in the book at the exhibit, I have a theory to why the bodies are so small. Granted the idea that they are Chinese would certainly fit the bill, but if you consider dehydration, the lack of fluids in the tissues and the whole body, the bodies would certainly be smaller and lighter. It's just my theory but it kind of makes sense. I know nothing about if the consent is factual, but being optomistic I must believe that it is so.

    Overall, I believe that the exhibit was scientific, artistic, and educational, and I fully enjoyed it.

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  5. body worlds is the least politically problematic of all of the body shows (yes, there are more), which frequently take bodies of executed political prisoners and unclaimed peoples (like in china) and use them as the feature - all illegally.

    body worlds' corpses all check out to be willful donations to science. so i personally have no problem with it, and i have actually found it to be quite beautiful and inspirational.

    as for Dr. Gunther von Hagens, he has been doing dissections for many years (i have actually watched one of his videos in anatomy) and i fully believe he wasn't trying to strive for anything but education in this exhibit, like any other anatomical endeavor that he has done in his history. yes, it is weird that he likes dissection THAT MUCH, but everything he has produced up to body worlds is used in anatomy classes across the country.