I attended the Body Worlds exhibit at the St. Louis Science Center today (January 1). I have to say it was the most moving science display of scientific information I’ve ever experienced. There is a permanent link to the website here: www.bodyworlds.com, so I’ll spare you a description of the models themselves. You can get a pretty good overview from the material out there on the web.
What I’m most curious about is my own reaction to the exhibit. I expected to see the structures of human bones and tissues in a new light. Certainly, I had never seen them in three dimensions, though I had experienced images of this exhibit online for several years, and those weren’t so different, really, than the anatomical drawings of Andreas Vesalius or his successors.
There were two things that were disturbing out the exhibition that I didn’t expect. The first was the way that Hagens (Gunther von Hagens) presented the lifelike quality of the models. I first became aware of this element of unease as I stared into the eyes of one of the models (I think it was the guy jumping over the hurdle). It’s a pose that not only captures the movement and energy of the living human body, but the model’s eyes actually seem to be looking out at something in particular. I don’t know if I can say they looked focused, but they certainly looked more alive than any other model I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen dead bodies at funerals, but they look peaceful and at rest. A final rest. Although clearly organic and human, they still look, well, dead. Not so with Hagen’s models. I could look his models in the eyes, I could walk around them, I could look over their shoulder to wonder where they gaze was cast, I could extend a hand to almost meet there’s outstretched. I could feel their mid-strides land. I could imagine their muscles tensely concentrating on balancing their current pose.
This life-like quality, then, must be one that is created. An effect to be sought after. And so, the anatomist must make presentation decisions toward that effect. How much of a leap is it to say, I wonder, that the anatomist becomes an artist making decisions about aesthetics? Or the anatomist becomes a speaker making rhetorical decisions about his message? In what ways to these new frames change the discussion of how these bodies are really transformed by this process? What are they becoming, other than merely anatomical models? There is so much more going on here that merely science. Politics, morality, aesthetics, etc. These reservations, then, lead me to the second observation to give me pause. The male model’s penises and testes were always a source of visual interest for each model. Sometimes hanging rather innocuously as a runner-in-stride floats in the air. Another time erect and split down the middle to expose the urethra extending to the head. I don’t take issue with the particular treatment of any of the models’ reproductive organs; however, the attention paid to them, both by the models’ “sculptors” and by the audience, is clearly related to the wood cuts on the vinyl prints hanging on the walls around the exhibition. I can’t help but think about the types of taboos this exhibition is interested in transgressing. Personally, I think these sorts of motivations are generally positive. But there’s some sort of sanctity to the human body that I just can’t shake, and I was really unable to feel at ease among these bodies-become-media. Maybe I’m old fashioned. If that turns out to be the case, I can accept that. But I wonder, if there are new spaces for sanctity being carved out as those so clearly exposed and illuminated by this exhibition.