BODY WORLDS: Artistic and Medical Corpse Abuse as Popular Entertainment

I’m of two minds about BODY WORLDS, the current blockbuster exhibit at the Franklin Institute. There are many aspects of the show that are thoroughly awe-inspiring yet, oddly enough, the entire display is also replete with a sense of the utterly abominable. As my intention is to say things that are not dead-on obvious, I will focus more here on the problematic aspects of the show than I will on the clearly valuable ones that are described in the promotional material.The complete title of the show is, Gunther von Hagens’ BODY WORLDS: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies. The awkward string of words betokens the confused and confusing nature of the show itself. Attaching a single individual’s name to the exhibition of these real human bodies announces that there is a self-promotional aesthete who is claiming the entire production as his own. Therefore it is not surprising that BODY WORLDS is suffused with show-biz hyperbole conjuring up global experience focused on the sensationalized commoditization of the human body. Gunther von Hagens is the inventor of “plastination,” a process in which epoxy resins are used to capture and display complex 3-dimensional anatomical dissections in real space. The practical use of his craft is to improve the quality of anatomical models for medical study. But von Hagens, who was jailed in East Germany for his political convictions, has higher aspirations than simply producing objects for scientific study. He wants to change the world – at least that part of the world involving human self-perception and how we conceive of the relationship between life and death.In pursuit of these lofty goals, von Hagens has created a series of exhibitions aimed at reaching the general public by means of informative presentation, quasi-aesthetic display, sideshow shocks, and spectacular showmanship. Even while the informational aspects of von Hagens’ BODY WORLDS shows are indeed high, the aesthetic dimension of his work is often garish and lowbrow. Moreover, von Hagens’ use of the techniques of mass entertainment, such as spectacle, voyeurism, necromania, and orchestrated shock tactics, has more to do with the art of propaganda than with other art forms. BODY WORLDS even introduces a fascinating new fetish for fans of abnormal psychology – that of posthumous exhibitionism. (Forms are available to sign over your dead body to be used in von Hagens’ work.)Make no mistake, for the most part, audiences love this stuff. BODY WORLDS is a mind expanding and informative experience. Audiences love it for that reason but they also love it for the same reasons they love horror movies, sideshows, televised surgery, Grand Guignol, and other safely experienced objectifications of shock, blood, and gore.Having said all this, I would still highly recommend the show. Besides having the questionable qualities I describe above, BODY WORLDS has everything it is hyped to have in its eloquent promotional literature. The plastinated bodies and body parts are quite arresting, amazing, and mind-expanding. They offer particularly unique visual and conceptual experience – even given their unsophisticated aesthetic realization. I do think our relationship with our bodies will never be a comfortable one. For many complex reasons we simultaneously experience our bodies as beautiful and ugly, self-justifying and shameful, attractive and repulsive. So it is not at all surprising that an exhibit such as this would reflect both the polarities of our corporeal experience and the paradoxes that accompany its representation.**Gunther von Hagens’ BODY WORLDS: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies, runs through April 23 at the Franklin Institute Science Museum, 222 North Franklin Street, Philadelphia PA. Additional information available here:http://www.bodyworlds.com/en/pages/home.asphttp://www.fi.edu/bodyworlds/index.htmlhttp://www.fi.edu/

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