STRIPPED of its skin, and with bone, muscle and tissue exposed, the cadaver seems to float in a form of suspended animation in its artistically lit glass case. There is the temptation to describe it as poetry in arrested motion, or something similarly lofty-sounding. But then you remember with a jolt that this museum exhibit was once a living, breathing, moving, sentient being.
This is the intellectual dilemma facing visitors to Body Worlds Vital, an exhibition of plastinated human bodies and body parts showing at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in Newtown, Johannesburg.
Viscerally, you might expect to be repulsed by the sight of real corpses — all voluntarily donated — whose tissue has been drained of fluid and replaced with a polymer-like silicon rubber. The bodies were then dissected and posed in sporting positions to illustrate the vitality of the body.
But you might confound your instincts by being strangely drawn to these “grotesques” instead — perhaps because they are matte, plastic-like and oddly beautiful in appearance, not bloody and gory in an elevated, hyper-real kind of way. In fact, you can’t look away.
There is the distance of mortality between you and the preserved specimen, yet also the peculiar emotional connection of shared humanity.
On show is the static body, deconstructed, yet its positioning in a dynamic pose makes it seem curiously animated, albeit still most emphatically dead.
The German curator of the exhibition, Angelina Whalley, can appreciate the mental gymnastics and conflicts that may arise from gawping at what are, essentially, corpses. Students of ethics and philosophy could have a field day here.
But the exhibition, she points out, is not there to shock but rather to fascinate and offer insights into the inner workings of the human body by illuminating its vitality.
It was Whalley’s husband, Gunther von Hagens, who invented the plastination technique in 1977 at the University of Heidelberg, leading to the first Body Worlds exhibition in Japan in 1995. A succession of touring exhibitions have been seen by more than 40m people worldwide since then, including about 250,000 South Africans in Johannesburg and Cape Town four years ago.
Also a physician by profession, Whalley describes plastination as a modern form of embalming: it halts the decomposition of the dead body and produces “solid, odourless and durable anatomical specimens for scientific and medical training”.
She calls the exhibition health education and “preventive medicine”. Cynics might call it a freak show.
“Some have called it a deeply moving encounter,” she says. “Like looking at yourself without a mirror. It gives you a different view of yourself, and ensures you don’t take your body or your health for granted.”
This is certainly true. Only a small proportion of the 180 anatomical specimens on display are full, plastinated bodies; included in the exhibition are examples of diseased organs, such as enlarged hearts and spleens and, most disturbingly, a smoker’s blackened lungs juxtaposed with a set of healthy ones. Cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure (you can take your own on site) and diabetes are vividly highlighted.
There is also a longitudinal body slice — yes, that’s really what it’s called — showing the organ and adipose tissue profile of an obese person, juxtaposed starkly with that of a person with normal body weight. It’s not a pretty sight.
Of the full-body specimens, many have been fashioned into athletic poses, such as men playing basketball and football, and a male figure skater holding a female aloft in a balletic pose. But these are all safely housed in glass cases, unlike the figure of a skier vaulting towards the onlooker: he is exhibited in the open, with his skull and body cleaved in two. The physical and psychological barrier between you and his preserved flesh has been removed: it’s unsettling, to say the least.
One of the figures, “nerve fibre man”, if you like, shows what (plastinated) nerves look like — a collection of tendrils, hanging down in strips. And the petite “lady of arteries and bones” displays the body’s forest-like ecosystem of blood vessels thanks to a special technique used to render the arterial system visible.
Luckily, the exhibition has been curated in such a way that the visitor is warmed up by first encountering skeletons and bones before moving on to the more gasp-worthy “showpieces”, with extra information provided by an audio guide. A section on preserved embryos and foetuses, showing prenatal development, is discreetly tucked away behind a curtained-off section.
But what of the donors themselves: who are they? Says Whalley: “We usually don’t know much about their hobbies, but we increasingly know more about their medical history. The vast majority are German, but we also have donors from around the world. Many of our visitors to Body Worlds feel so inspired, they say: ‘Ah! This is so gorgeous. I learnt so much — I want to be part of it.’”Whalley says there are now 16,000 volunteers on file, and about 1,700 corpses have so far been received.
Some “imitator” exhibitions have run into legal trouble trying to transport bodies across borders without having the necessary permissions, but Whalley says everything Body Worlds does is above board.
“We’ve had no trouble bringing exhibits in [to SA].
“We label them as anatomical, scientific, educational specimens,” she says.
“Certainly, there are countries in the world we haven’t visited so far. Islamic countries, for example, would have an issue with such an exhibition. And in Great Britain, because of the Anatomy Act, we have to present the donation forms. But we’ve visited Turkey and Israel without issues having arisen. We don’t [consider] going to problematic countries. The world is so big, and there’s such a demand from museums, that we don’t have to.”
Whalley hopes visitors will see Body Worlds as an “eye-opener”. “I want them to realise they have a wonderful, intricate treasure inside them ... and that it is fragile and resilient. The body is the only place you have to live in, so it’s worth treating it well. This exhibition invites people to reflect on their own lives and lifestyles, and how small changes can make a difference.”
Whalley says 9% of people surveyed six months after visiting the exhibition claimed to have stopped smoking, 33% reported eating more healthily and 25% said they exercised more.
Students of anatomy and scientists may be able to view the exhibits dispassionately, certainly, but Body Worlds really brings everyman face to jarring face with his own mortality: it shows us that, at cellular and molecular level, we are all a complex assemblage of bones, muscles, blood vessels, nerves and other tissue: a humbling thought.
Momentarily revealing a chink of emotion in her scientist’s armour, Whalley says that her husband, plastination pioneer Gunther von Hagens, has been latterly afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. This insight makes the quote by Von Hagens, depicted on a large mural at the conclusion of the exhibition, unexpectedly poignant: “The plastinated post-mortal body illuminates the soul by its very absence.” It is what we don’t see that elevates us above skin and bone.
Visit www.bodyworldsvital.co.za for more information. Body Worlds is on until June 19 at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in Newtown, Johannesburg. The exhibition moves to Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront from August 9 to October 23. Tickets are available at Webtickets.