Body Worlds2, the new “controversial” exhibition at the Museum of Science, is part science, part art, part self-promotion and just a tad creepy. Gunther von Hagens is the inventor of a new process of body preservation he calls Plastination. After removing all the fats and liquids from a corpse, von Hagens replaces them through “forced impregnation” with plastics. The bodies become very pliable and Hagens poses them, often in stressed athletic positions, dissects them almost from inside out and then cures them to fully harden the specimens.
The result is disconcerting, if uniquely revealing. Imagine a hatchet slicing in half a woman about to dive into the water, starting from her head on down, dividing her out-flung arms in half, but leaving her internal organs intact. The two sides of “The Head Diver” are folded back and the organs are strangely prominent. We stand with a group of first-year medical students, all of us bent in between the two halves of the cadaver as they point out the uterus, Fallopian tubes, intestines, diaphragm, stomach, heart, liver and esophagus.
We see everything! We see organs we never heard of. As Peter, one of our future physicians says, “Amazing to see what is really inside of us.” And outside of us too. Most of the exhibits are male bodies, so there are a plethora of plastinated male organs on display – all of them strangely similar in their pasty whiteness and intact 5-inch flaccid length. Artistic liberty is taken, though, with the scrotal sacs. For example, the “Flying Skier” has the cock and one ball on one side of the split body, and the second testicle on the other.
But where’s the god-damned clit? There’s no clit, no mention, no sighting, although we do see the pussy lips of “The Yoga Lady” doing her backward bridge, nicely reflected in the mirror shelf underneath. In fact, in the first Body World there were few female bodies. In his FAQ, von Hagens explains this as the result of “carrying on the tradition of Renaissance anatomists” (we all recall Renaissance plastic, of course). Even worse, he says that between the sexes “all but the reproductive systems are essentially the same” – making one wonder if he’s been stuck in his lab since the 50s. But it turns out that 60% of his donors (forms available at the exhibit) now are women, so he is using them and pitching to them for donations.
von Hagens aims to educate: the show’s subtitle is “The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies.” Besides the physical systems, there’s also the promotion of health. The visual comparison of real lungs – one healthy, one of a smoker and one of a coal miner – is a lesson in increasing blackness. But to the viewer, it is his personal creative expression that seems to dominate von Hagens’ project. He prominently signs each “work” – the transformation of a human corpse into slices (both lengthwise or sagittal and horizontal) or the peeling back of the entire head like “the pages of a book” down to the tongue and the disturbing blue eyes of “The X-Lady.”
We never understand about those eyes – are they plastinated or glass additions? What about the bright red and blue blood vessels? We know these are real dead humans, but we’re not sure if and how far they are accessorized. We have a similar query of the Imax® film that serves as a companion to this show at the Museum of Science. “The Human Body” was produced as a collaboration between the Discovery Channel and BBC and takes us for a whirlwind tour inside the lungs, arteries and brain. We see a wily little sperm penetrate a big, rotund egg. It’s all a good deal of fun, but we’re never sure where biological microscopy ends and animation begins.
The central narrative of “The Human Body” concerns a lovely white 30-year old pregnant woman who spends nine months musing with yuppie metaphors over her pregnancy, which we follow fetal step by step. Hubby is out working. Fair enough, he does hold her hand during labor. She swims in the pool so that she is in the same environment as her spawn and we are left to wonder about the message given to all the children and women in the Museum’s audience. Is this how most pregnancies are actually experienced? What about the struggling poor, flipping burgers over their big stomachs? What about the women who can’t stop vomiting? What about the confused pregnant teenager? Must we idealize reproduction beyond all reality?
After the film, we return to the exhibit to finish our tour. Like everyone else, we spend hours looking at such riveting creations as “The Muscle Man” whose walking musculature is shadowed by his now-separated skeletal self. And at “The Skateboarder,” balancing on one hand so that “a rather unusual insight is given into the anatomy of the buttock region.” No argument there. There are even a few animals, not the least the astounding camel whose head and long neck are sliced and placed in three different positions – looking up, staring ahead and grazing – giving the distinct impression of movement. “The Angel’s” back is opened up into two wings and the famous “Drawer Man” has geometric chunks pulled out – like drawers – hunks of his face, thigh, chest, back and ass.
In the process we learn a great deal about anatomy and biology and ourselves. Dr. von Hagens is a showman and a strong self-promoter – his name is simply everywhere, often coupled with breathless adjectives. But he has produced an startling concept from which we cannot help but learn. The facts and numbers pour out from the explanatory panels, when we can take our eyes off the colorful dissections long enough to look. But beyond the dazzle, there are questions seeking answers, not the least: Where is the clit?