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Home > Culture and Society

TFT Goes To... The Bodies Exhibition

12 June 2006

Gunther von Hagens is, by anyone's standards, a creepy bastard. With his sharp cheekbones and sunken eyes and big black hat, he looks almost exactly like the baddie out of 'Poltergeist II' - the 'God is iiiiiin his holy temmmple' guy. He's a caricature of an anatomist, a bloke who coldly cuts up cadavers without a blink. He invented the process of plastination in the late 70s, enabling entire human bodies to be preserved indefinitely, exactly as they were when they died, in any pose you care to plonk them in. His exhibition Body Worlds caused a worldwide ruckus when it was first shown, but it hasn't deterred other anatomists from producing their own shows using the same techniques. These in turn have invoked their own portions of fury, from human rights activists, abortion rights activists, and the simply, blindly, hand-clasped-to-mouth horrified. London is presently playing host to the bluntly-named Bodies exhibition, no less controversial but somewhat less stunning than Von Hagens' original freak show/educational marvel.

We saw Body Worlds a few years ago, and were struck by... well, by all elements of it. These were real corpses, eerily, impossibly transformed and looking like only slightly scruffy plastic models. They were people with their skin off, or wearing their skin like pashminas, doing sports and striking poses, their spectacular brightly-coloured guts neatly packed, stringy muscles like dog chews sticking out. There was a man on a rearing horse, absurd glass eyes googling; a man made only of his arteries, veins and capillaries, like some giant red bit of moss; a pregnant woman displaying her nakedness, innards and curled-up foetus casually, as if posing for a portrait. That one got people's backs up, and indeed we found it hard to justify to ourselves - it seemed so prurient. But overwhelming the qualms was a sense of giddy wonder at the exhibition as a whole. And, as it happened, peckishness. We were forced to acknowledge the humanity of the exhibits when we came across a neatly-sliced man with his shoulder tattoo still intact - somehow, that's what did it, that little surface layer adornment, not all the alien visceral stuff on display. But then after a couple of hours, our eyes adjusted; first we'd seen ourselves, disturbed and then fascinated - then we'd just seen *meat*. We went for a curry. As we tucked in, we could hear 'Did you see that guy holding his own brain in his hand?' coming from other tables, through big mouthfuls of madras. It was a bit revolutionary - we'd been freed from our oppressive squeam, and could now stare death in the face and offer it a kebab. Von Hagens' insistence is that death has been taken from the populace, snatched and jealously guarded by the medical profession, and it's time we were allowed to have it back. He's right, too.

So this time we knew what to expect, as did the media and public prior to the opening. The Evening Standard greeted it with articles entitled 'Stop this freak show'. Anti-abortion groups protested, as did human rights groups. There was insistence that the exhibition was 'shameful' and 'gory' and 'in the worst possible taste'. However, these weren't just the usual shower of prudes and religious hysterics; the people from Friends of Falun Gong may have a point. Their assertion is that the corpses used in Bodies - which were bought from a Chinese medical school, officially - are those of executed Chinese prisoners. The organisers, the rather faceless Premier Exhibitions, insist they procured the bodies legitimately; the Falun Gong supporters say they have yet to see conclusive proof that this is the case. As it stands no one seems to be sure, and it should give anyone attending the exhibition serious pause. However, it probably shouldn't stop anyone from venturing in. If - if - the corpses did belong to wrongly imprisoned and wrongly executed people, and whether or not the organisers knew this or opted not to ask too many questions, the issue is their wrongful execution, not the display of the result. While boycotts can be powerful political tools, to stay away from this exhibition would hardly send a stern wake-up call to the Chinese authorities. At least the media attention has drawn fresh attention to the ghastly issue, even if its focus will be skewed for many, who see the exhibition as the obscenity. And... well, half the point of these exhibitions is to introduce us to the idea of the body as something separate from the self - as an amazing but moral-free shell, something that isn't encumbered with notions of an immortal soul. It's neutral. Hard as it is to get your head around, this stuff is manifestly just... *stuff*. We tend to fetishise the body perhaps even more in death than in life, and it's something of an insult to hold it in the same esteem as the whole human being, extraordinary as it may be.

The exhibition, set in the bowels of Earls Court, doesn't really lend itself to such contemplation. It's cool and quiet, but the exhibits are low-key and blandly educational compared with the daringly flamboyant poses of Body Worlds. Still, it's hard not to be awed when confronted with a whole human pelt slung out in a glass case, little hairs poking out, nails still intact. School-friendly, mind-boggling facts appear on boards at regular intervals, informing us that we have 96,000 kilometres of blood vessels in our body and sneeze at 96 km per hour. There's great emphasis on the damage we can do to ourselves - these bodies being from China, where smoking is considered good for you, there are scorched, pocked, blackened lungs aplenty. (Endearingly, there's a fag amnesty box, a big perspex thing with an exhortation to give up on the spot.) Not far into the exhibition there's a table bearing a plastinated portion of brain, a tiny kidney, a giant liver and a bit of muscle, manned by a nice young chap who cheerfully explains their function. We go straight for the liver and heft it. It doesn't feel as smoothly plastic as we expected - disconcertingly, the surface although hard has the illusion of some give. The guide points out where on our own body it sits. 'Oh, here? Ooh.' We exchange grins. It's funny. That big lump of meat with its little gall bladder bauble. Our brains weren't really designed to cope with seeing our own insides, and your coping response is just as likely to be gawky amusement as repulsion.

It's a gay parade of candy-floss arterial systems and floating intestines elsewhere, and at least one von Hagens-esque semi-horror; in this case, a standing woman without even the eyebrows, lips and glass eyes which pass for a face on most of the exhibits. It's genuinely disturbing, but it's not presented as such - it's relentlessly scientific, too concerned with the factual and the actual to concede to emotional fastidiousness. And it's right. Science may be gobsmackingly offhand about the use of what is sacred to many, but it's only healthy and sensible to try and adjust our thinking to that end. Careless and insensitive doctors have set the cause back by ruthlessly harvesting organs without relatives' consent, but it's not too much to hope that at some point we'll have an opt-out organ donation system rather than the opt-in one we have - which leads to a huge shortage of donors, causing completely unnecessary suffering and untimely death.

These exhibitions are about life and how to avoid death, although they're also emphatic that death is just part of life. Still, Bodies wants you to avoid that natural progression for as long as possible. It dramatically demonstrates that while you may look more or less healthy on the outside, your insides might look like they've been chewed on by sick raccoons. But arguably it doesn't matter what you do to yourself in the pursuit of happiness, increasing your lifeyness while actively pursuing death. After all, you can jog every morning, eat good foods and be healthy as a horse, and then one day - boom - you're a bit of kidney in a case. Makes you think.

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