frozen in time

[The following is a short review that I did of the Body Worlds 2 exhibit when it came to the Ontario Science Centre a few years ago. Since the plastinated cadavers have returned, I thought I would re-post it here.]


I spent this afternoon surrounded by dead bodies.

While we can thank the Swede, Susanne Wiigh-Masak, for figuring out how to freeze-dry them before shaking them into dust, it is the German anatomist Gunther von Hagens we can congratulate for learning how to turn them into plastic. Using a patented method he stumbled across in 1977, he is capable of replacing the organic fluids of the deceased with synthetic polymers, effectively transforming cadavers into rigid display pieces: rendered authentically inert. The controversial scientist, who has been in and out of legal predicaments over the course of his career—on charges as varied as illegal importation of the dead to the misrepresentation of his professional distinctions—has been at this game for a while now, and the more recent results of his efforts are presently on display at the Ontario Science Centre, under the moniker of Body Worlds 2. The models are human, preserved at varying degrees of dissection, and arranged in a boggling array of painstaking poses and presentments. These are the real undead, or at least, the un-decomposed, halted on their journey back to the elements of their creation. We can now observe them, suspended, as edifying entertainment: foisting a javelin; illusionally vivisected and spread; sometimes, sliced laterally and fanned into a deck of cross sections; and all the while imitating, or somehow referencing, the life that was there at one time, if life were to continue without skin, or fat, or movement.

Besides the ethical and moral quandaries that were disturbingly absent from the exhibit, so too was the element which science is, although not incapable of, so often guilty of voiding from experience: a sense of reverence. The spectacle was purely clinical, and addressed innovation much more readily than mystery; even though what we were looking at is still very much a mystery: the body, halted and empty.

The room was adorned with quotes, great banners courtesy of thinkers and wordsmiths. It was festooned with applicable dogmas, cut and paste without regard to culture or epoch.

Oh, what a piece of work is man…

(Though you might consider that in the context, Hamlet’s tone was quite acerbic.)

And one from Saint Thomas Aquinas, who imagined a greater purpose, further than simply function in the human form, which is so elegant in symmetry. Does it not suggest a higher design, he asks? A hint of the divine?

Perhaps, but the Greek philosopher was quite plain in his sentiments: death is beyond good and evil, as they are based on sensation, and sensation is rooted in the body. Beyond sensation there is cessation, and therefore nothing. So, there it is.

Not so much after all. No need to concern yourself. They are, in the end, just dead bodies.

It is possible that we now pretend to be a civilization rooted in a reasonable god, one that has freed us from any superstitious notions about the used vessels of life and the stigmas that surround them, but we aren’t; not yet. I’m not sure that I can pretend to forget that. I’m not sure I can really believe in the tinkerers that would not only take it apart and study, but then display it so brashly, with such vulgarity. Some taboos develop in order to harness and protect the intangibles of our lives, which are just as intrinsic as blood and breath. Maybe the dead are not meant to be entertaining, even if they are educational.

Maybe the disquiet I feel is the result of transgressing something, part of that which vacates the body after it stops. Something more.

Or maybe they were just gross.


~ by A Mundi on October 21, 2009.

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