Thursday, December 01, 2005

I See Dead People

Art, science, something in between or just plain freak show? Everyone who visits Professor Gunther von Hagens' display of ingeniously-posed human corpses comes away with a different opinion. With the exhibition having moved from Europe to Asia, how - if at all - have perspectives changed?

Von Hagens' BODY WORLDS exhibition has been dogged by controversy since its inception. It's not difficult to see why: you're looking at actual dead people. The professor, an anatomist, uses a pioneering process called plastication in which volunteers' bodies are skinned and their tissues soaked and hardened in chemical agents. The result is eternal preservation.

What's the point? According to the BODY WORLDS website, it's all about research and education. For specialists in science and medicine, 'whole body plastinates are considered the best anatomical specimens'. As for the rest of us, a greater awareness of the human body supposedly leads to better-informed lifestyle choices. A follow-up survey six months after the Vienna exhibition found 33% of visitors pursuing a healthier diet and 25% engaging in more sports activities.

Sounds great. So what's the problem? As I said before: you're looking at actual dead people. German critics labeled the show, 'a gross violation not only of bodily decorum but of human dignity itself'. An incensed 50-year-old man attacked one of the London exhibits with a hammer. British anatomists protested that von Hagens's display was 'mere spectacle' and might deter families from donating bodies to medical science.

With this backdrop in mind, I joined the queues at Seoul's National Science Museum to have a look for myself. Chattering school kids filled the cheerily-lit hall with all the energy of an afternoon away from the classroom. Exhibits posed as javelin-throwers and goal-keepers were being earnestly sketched for school projects and discussed matter-of-factly with teachers. I imagined Professor von Hagens looking on and nodding in approval.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed two boys pointing and giggling at the javelin-thrower's plasticated penis. And it struck me - you've guessed it - these are actual dead people. Suddenly all kinds of questions began raising themselves. On the subject of human dignity, how would I like to die and have my body flayed and displayed in all its gory glory for school kids and old ladies to gawp at (answer: thanks but no thanks). And what exactly is the difference between those old 19th century freak shows with their bearded ladies and two-headed children and BODY WORLDS with its deformed fetuses and hunchbacked torsos?

The obvious retort to the latter question would center around marketing and audience perception: the notion that BODY WORLDS, through its publicity and museum location, calls for and gets a considered and scientific response from its viewers. If only life were that simple. If only we all thought as the professor would have us think.

The blurring of science with art begins in BODY WORLDS' own website:

Leonardo and Michelangelo, the most famous artists of the Renaissance, carried out anatomical dissection. Many professionals in the field of art are concerned and informed through BODY WORLDS.

Parallels between the timelessness of portraiture and sculpture and the professor's immortal dead people stare back at those with eyes to see. Some exhibits - the thoughtful Rodinesque chess players spring to mind - even seem to pay a kind of death-imitates-art homage.

The more you allow your mind to ramble, the more problematic the whole concept of BODY WORLDS becomes. Audience-watching merely adds to the confusion. What, for example, am I supposed to think of two twenty-something nuns studying a dead woman's ovaries?

It should be said the exhibition has caused no controversy in Korea. Giggling boys aside, the audience during my visit appeared genuinely fascinated, viewing the plasticates within a purely scientific and educational framework. I observed a number of shy young couples, who probably haven't even got to the kissing stage yet (this being conservative Korea), studying male and female genitalia without batting so much as an eyelid. Mind you, who's to say what they were really thinking.

Art, science, something in between or just plain freak show? As in all exhibitions, the choice is the beholders. It isn't difficult to block out the doubts and view the displayed corpses through the cold eyes of an amateur anatomist. Eventually, though, your mind will probably wander, and you in turn will wonder what BODYWORLDS is all about. The answers - like the questions - will be up to you.




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