It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when fine art was functioning at the cutting edge of scientific research. In the early 17th century, an aging Leonardo da Vinci, in direct contravention of Pope Bonifacius VIII’s De Septuris papal bull, documented his extensive dissections of human corpses by candlelight, greatly expanding contemporary knowledge of the structures of the body and establishing one of the major foundations of modern medical science. It is partly in tribute to the spirit of Leonardo (only the most famous of many anatomically curious artists of the Renaissance) that German anatomist Dr. Gunther von Hagens assembled “Body Worlds” — his controversial, incredibly beautiful and enormously popular traveling exhibition of “plastinated” human bodies. The 200-plus pickled, flayed and displayed stiffs (or portions thereof), whose fluids have been replaced with polymers, are currently making their North American debut at the California Science Center.
While Leonardo’s anatomical renderings were never published during his lifetime, von Hagens is something of a media whiz. During the 2002 run of “Body Worlds” in London, the man some call “the Walt Disney of Death” (and others “Mengele 2000”) performed the first public autopsy there in 170 years — later broadcast on BBC 4. The exhibit has been viewed by an estimated 15 million paying customers since its opening in Japan, in 1996, but von Hagens felt the need to drum up interest in Berlin by appearing on a float in the annual “Love Parade” in a flamboyant body suit painted with internal organs.
In spite of numerous art-historical references, and the posing of the flayed specimens in lifelike poses with sometimes-irreverent props, he refuses the title of “artist.” Nevertheless, he has bizarrely co-opted the persona of one of the most recognizable German artists of the 20th century, augmenting his physical resemblance to “social sculptor” Joseph Beuys by constantly sporting a hunting vest and fedora — Beuys’ sartorial trademark. Is nothing sacred?
Whatever he calls himself, von Hagens is nothing if not a showman. Although the exhibit opens with relatively restrained displays of plastinated limbs containing artificial joints and the like, the sensationalism and peculiar humor kick in soon enough, with the first two “gestalt plastinates,” as he calls the more elaborate tableaux. In one, a bony armature tapping a bulky meat puppet on the shoulder from behind turns out to be a Muscleman With His Skeleton. Across from it, the carefully unfastened musculature of The Runner appears to be flapping behind him in the breeze. Poster boy The Basketball Player is frozen middribble, while The Chess Player, rubberized central nervous system bared to the world, contemplates a next move that will never come. And that’s just the first floor.
As you wend your way to the third floor through the overlit din of the Science Center’s lobby, with its enormous gift shop, rock-climbing wall, and McDonald’s and Taco Bell franchises, you are perforce reminded of the inherent dignity of public displays of a scientific nature, so that by the time you enter for the second round of the polymer-flesh parade, you’re ready for edification.
You will not be disappointed. The second, much larger installment of the show is rife with cautionary pathologies — tumors, metastases, ulcers, aneurysms, hardened arteries, bloated livers, massive constipation and, of course, blackened lungs. This last seems to be the most-repeated ostensible moral justification provided to those who object to “Body Worlds” — scaring smokers straight! And if you are a nonsmoker, and diseases aren’t your bag, it doesn’t matter. Because there are a dozen or so more gestalt plastinations, each more remarkable than the last — The Bicycle Rider, a normal-size man completely dismantled and reassembled to fit on a giant-size bicycle; a whole body carrying his own skin like an overcoat, Exploded Body Specimen, looking like something Clive Barker wishes he’d dreamed up; the piecemeal Organ Man, whose text panel, referring to his jaunty but sadly solitary single prop, reads, “A white hat further narrows the gap between life and death.”
Most powerful perhaps is Reclining Woman in the 8th Month of Pregnancy, displayed in a separate alcove with a progression of fetuses. The most visually arresting is the family grouping of figures made up entirely of bright-red plastinated blood vessels, branching into impossibly fine clouds of capillaries, shedding tiny fragments of crimson venule to the black floor of their glass vitrine.
In spite of Von Hagens' fascinating exposure of usually hidden bodily structures to a lay audience, many medical insiders are skeptical of his claims of educational beneficence. “You can talk to anatomists about this and you may get different opinions,” says Gretchen Worden, of the College of Physicians at Philadelphia’s famous Mutter Museum, “but it really is not necessary or advantageous to explode a body vertically just because you can. A lot of the preparations are anatomical tours de force in the sense of ‘Oh, look what you can do with a body!’ But it is not necessarily the best way to teach people the relationship of the muscles to the bones to the nerves. It’s showmanship, and I would say that the means are overwhelming the message.”
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