By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
But on an aesthetic level, the exhibition’s means are unassailable. How many contemporary sculptors would give their right arm to create an object half so compelling? So many strains of contemporary curatorial practice intersect here — the obsession with natural history and medical display, ongoing interest in the Freudian uncanny (the catalog for Mike Kelley’s 1993 show “The Uncanny” has just been reprinted), morbid Romanticism, and Victorian repression of carnality.
That said, one of the most overlooked effects of “Body Worlds” is the way it de-shock-values so much contemporary art. Compared with von Hagens’ almost operatic paraphilia, where’s the titillation in Damien Hirst’s bisected bovines, Rudolph Schwartzkogler’s simulated surgeries, Teresa Margolles’ morgue appropriations, Orlan’s magnum opus of nips, tucks and hype, or even the fetus-eatin’ hijinks of the contemporary Chinese avant-garde? And if Charlie Ray can have the parts of a fatal car crash copied in fiberglass and reassembled as a new sculpture, why shouldn’t von Hagens’ near doppelgängers, which are three-fourths plastic, be weighed on the same scale? And what exactly is the big deal?
So far, in L.A., there doesn’t seem to be any big deal. No public outcry, no condemnation by local authorities, no lawsuits, no publicity stunts. Maybe it’s the distance from the European medical establishment that von Hagens so openly despises, or the fact that extra care was taken to solicit endorsements from various local pillars, both medical and ecclesiastical. But I think it has something to do with the movies. The top-grossing German film of 2000 was Stefan Rudowitzky’s Anatomie — a boilerplate medical slasher obviously based on von Hagens’ work. “It’s statue time!” exclaims the Aryan intern as he approaches his girl victim, brandishing a hypodermic full of insta-plastination serum.
Many of the other cultural touchstones brought to mind by “Body Worlds” are B movies: House of Wax, Color Me Blood Red, Hellraiser, Re-Animator, Silence of the Lambs, etc., etc. In fact, there’s a whole milieu of West Coast post-punk underground culture — exemplified by the Adam Parfrey–Amok Books– RE/Search–Juxtapoz axis of evil — that for at least a quarter-century has been steadily eroding the very same taboos that give “Body Worlds” its hint of transgression. In a place where gore-meisters have their own union, a little fillet of jerky isn’t going to turn any stomachs.
But there’s a deeper political meaning. The lengthy and complex relationship between art and the anatomical sciences is clearly not over. Beneath all the talk of propriety there lies a history of institutional political control over our individual corporeality and death, and art’s role in administering or interfering with that. If anything unifies the underground cultural streams where “Body Worlds” seems most at home, it’s the circumvention of authoritarian strictures of good taste by appealing directly to a mass audience. And in spite of the fact that he is raking in millions of dollars, receiving bodies from underregulated Siberian medical facilities, and basically running a plastination sweatshop in China, in spite of the fact that Dr. von Hagens relies on the authority of his medical credentials and the threadbare rationale of public education to pitch his wares, and in spite of the fact that he stole Joseph Beuys’ outfit, there’s no escaping the fact that “Body Worlds” is a revolutionary artwork that manages to elude civic and art-world thou-shalt-nots to give the people what they want — a Barnumesque spectacle that would make Wilhelm Reich and Georges Bataille lurch from their graves and break into applause.
GUNTHER VON HAGENS’ “BODY WORLDS”: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies | California Science Center, 700 State St., Exposition Park, Los Angeles | Through January 23, 2005
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