[ Got one interview. Two more to find. More on that later- I've basically been sucked into a vortex of getting stuff done. Have scarcely broken a sweat for two weeks, let alone managed to get to the gym to start my Intensive Weights Workout (Everything Sounds Better With Capitals, Don't You Think?). Back to the post, my account of Body Worlds...]
The title is a line from the introductory poem at the start of the Body Worlds exhibition, describing, yes, the human body. I finally got myself to the exhibition, albeit at one of the least convenient times for me, with an impending hectic two days and essay deadline.
I first encountered plastinated pieces of the human body when at an open day for Sheffield University; in the Biomedical part, a professor gave general outlines of the courses available whilst absently toying with a quarter of a human head in his hands, and nearby a piece of plastinated hand lay on the table. I was struck by the dehumanising nature of anatomical studies, of dissection, of plastination. The body was reduced to a thing to be observed, studied, dissected. No trace of human personality or anything connected to the being of a human being, nothing but matter arranged into physical shape. The professor held a chunk of man’s head, its eyes closed as though sleeping, and what was the history of that man? How many people had looked on his face while he was alive? What had he thought, felt, done?
I have also dissected small animals as part of my biology undergrad, and I remember usually feeling both a sense of studious curiosity while digging about with sticky metal tools and prodders, followed by my standing back at the end with a tool and knife in either hand, viewing the splattered-over-the-board results at the end with a kind of resigned remorse. I kind of enjoyed the dissections, I am a biology-geek down to the genes, really, yet you have to forget the life of the thing you’re dissecting in order to learn. Meanwhile, I have only read news articles on Gunther von Hagens and idly discussed him with others.
The exhibition is hosted inside the 02 arena / former Millennium Dome, of which I was unaware that it is now a collection of restaurants and exhibition spaces.
The exhibition began with a quick explanation of its intentions. There would be no personal information about any of the body donors, this was not about individual histories or tragedies. The bodies were purely universal, and intended for scientific understanding. While it’s the juxtaposition of these two themes that has disturbed me before, certain explanations like these in the exhibition were extremely helpful in clarifying the nature of the exhibition. One very good one was at the very end… but first, the start.
Entering the black walled space, a poem of the human body (the title is a line from it) speaks stoically in the background while you see the first exhibit, a long line of human embryos at different stages of development. The pulpy tadpoles become tiny figures, which then progress into the unreal-looking, thin bodied but large headed foetuses of later weeks and months. A reclining pregnant woman is the centrepiece of the second room, with the unborn baby exposed inside.
The next room had collections of many parts. Tiny, tiny ear bone ossicles the size of fingernail clippings. A walking man, divided into his musculature, and his skeleton, so that he seemed split into two people from one. The bodies retained pieces of eyebrows, lips and eyelids, presumably to make them appear more like people, to make it easier to imagine them as once being living humans. Another man held his skin draped over his arm, like thin, flimsy white leather, lightly furred and twitching slightly in the room’s air conditioning. Pieces of bone, joints, cross sections, arrangements.
At first I found I was nearly holding my breath, but there were no perturbing smells waiting to assail me in the exhibition- just the smell of plastic and resin. I felt only creeped out by the fingernails remaining on the bodies… I guess I don’t like other people’s fingernails.
A feature displaying the stringy, flimsy looking white nerve network gave comparisons to the painters of Degas and Monet, of their degenerating eyesight which led to the characteristic blur of their paintings. Degas, apparently, had a visual acuity of 6/133 for his 1905 painting, ‘Woman Drying Hair’, which meant he couldn’t have identified the top letter on an optician’s chart. Neither can I. I have to try not to spoil the surprise for myself when walking into the room by keeping my eyes averted from the chart.
Much of the exhibition and the billboards discussed the problems of aging, the effects on the body. I couldn’t help feeling terribly past-it at 23, and it was only going to get worse. Happily, information was also given on how to maintain the self- healthy eating… exercise… continuing mental stimulation… One room was dedicated to featuring centenarians, those who have reached the 100 year old mark, what features of their life might have helped, and where they seem most concentrated in the globe.
A very interesting technique draws liquid plastic into the blood vessels of the body, even, it seems, the tiny capillaries, makng a hairy and dense plastic representation of the network. This was used to show the remarkable delicacy and concentration of blood vessels in a human arm, in small animals, and the human head.
Bodies were arranged in artistic kinds of poses, which I had heard criticism of before. One skeleton emerged from the ground, to represent the Middle Ages belief that corpses left their graves at nightfall.
Diseased organs were pretty graphic. A liver with cirrhosis is a bubbly, shrivelled little thing compared to the fat smooth weight of a healthy one. Smoker’s lungs are typically overcast in black and grey, or featured with dense fleshy tumours in cross-sections. A brain with Alzheimer’s is amazingly reduced, with reduced and skinnier wiggles instead of the normal, healthy fat close packed swirls of cerebral matter. (I’m currently watching the Terry Pratchett documentary, ‘Living with Alzheimers’ as I write this too… my favourite and iconic childhood / older author… oddly my other iconic pre-teens author was Brian Jacques, another venerable and bearded man. Hey, Dad! Grow a beard!).
The finale was a huge, partly split giraffe, which exposed the huge inner organs and was at least three times my height. (BTW, I think Professor von Hagens should stop allowing gothic / creepy / ghoulish photos to be taken of him…)
Final quotes from the exhibition- ‘For our size, humans should die of old age by 25, but the fact we don’t signals the survival advantage of our brains and memory storage.’
‘The plastinated post-mortal body illuminates the soul by its very absence.’
‘Plastination transforms the deceased body, an individual object of mourning into an object of reverance, learning, enlightenment, and appreciation.
The exhibition even provided a ‘Life Certificate’ which you could take away with you, filling in details about when you had visited the exhibition, and vows for healthy living and body appreciation in the future. I found it a very nice touch. I’m really glad I went.