Abby and I have long since come to the conclusion that we can't have a pleasant meal unless we're watching an autopsy on television.
And for the most part, it's true - there's nothing more deliciously sinister while flaking out in front of the tv with a bowl of tuna helper than when the flickering depths reveal a splayed human figurine grotesquely arranged on a dissection table, while bedewed actors with flawless skin carve pieces of meat from the corpse and inter-spliced animations explain the cause of death with glitzy precision. Everything on CSI is metallic and blue lit, gleaming surfaces wiped clean by an art director's committed vision, and on my screen, even the last blood violently pulled from its shielding body is rendered into a feasting picture, one as readily fed into my eyes as my dinner is spooned into my mouth.
This is the art of death, and it's this mimetic depersonalization of the body, this separation of humanity in life from the human form left behind in death, that some would argue is responsible for our disengagement with most of the actual death we experience in our everyday lives. In this reading, art's stylistic rendering of life in turn becomes a gateway for life's imitation of art; seeing death as entertainment on television primetime prepares us for a commonplace reaction to death when it appears as information on the news. I'm still not sure that I actually believe this, but after a year of bloody spaghettiOs and disembodied hot dogs, I figured that I was as ready as I'd ever be to engage with Gunther Von Hagens' Body Worlds.
So Sandor and I set off, our open minds gruesomely entertained by the prospect of actual human beings flayed into our common multitude of layers, science rendered art by Von Hagens' commitment to his viewers' hungry gaze. We were prepared to spend an hour or two viewing cadavers in cavalier poses irreverently displayed, "nature chased to her hiding places," as Mary Shelley would say. Later, we figured, we'd get some sushi.
Von Hagens' claim is that Body Worlds "reveal[s] significant insights about human anatomy, physiology and health, presenting an unprecedented view of the structure and function of the human body and offering an unforgettable lesson on the importance of leading a healthy lifestyle." In other words, its purpose is didactic, similar in form and function to Canada's Food Guide or to a "Don't Drink and Drive" ad. Viewing Body Worlds is supposed to "stimulate curiosity about the science of anatomy" and encourage us to eat healthier, exercise more and appreciate the unique mechanics of the human form. But people aren't going for that. People are going for this:
Body Worlds isn't significant because we're seeing dead bodies, but because we're seeing dead bodies arranged as art in imitation of life. Viewers aren't going just for an anatomy lesson or reminder to quit smoking, but for the showmanship Von Hagens displays in his dead posed anew; instead of bodies preserved in a Jeremy Bentham, freeze-dried and pickled kind of way, Von Hagens' artistry emerges in his active sculpture, his scalpel carving through tissue to bring a viewer right inside a human body. It's the same principle as that applied to taxidermy - the animal is best displayed in flight or about to pounce - it is the body in action that attracts us, captured forever in pose of what it does best.
And so it is with Body Worlds. Even though the majority of the material consists of plastinated organs and cross-sections of body parts, the advertisements for the exhibit display the complete forms of what used to be people, now engaged in contemplation or in sport and stripped of skin and fat and any identifying marks of who or what they used to be. They become Everyman, heralding literally what we all are on the inside, and from the moment that we entered, it was obvious that these former creatures were the major draw. People would cluster around the figures, circling and pointing, some whispering, some spellbound. Because they're displayed without glass, viewers could lean in as unbearably close as they wished, looking deeply into the crevice where a heart used to be, or supplicate their hands in comparison.
Turned into art, the materiality of the body is made painfully explicit as the mind struggles to remember that the glistening plastinated figures on display were once living and breathing just like the people looking at them. In an interview about the original Body Worlds, Von Hagens claimed that his exhibition "is a place where the dead and the living mix," and I found myself more interested in watching people engage with the figures than I was in looking at Von Hagens' art. And it is art - each piece is titled, and each anatomically segmented and posed figurine bears his signature inscribed in a metal plaque at its feet. The only thing that distinguishes Von Hagens from any other artist is his chosen medium of flesh.
We make a great fuss over the distinction between art and science, even though we don't really have a compelling way of distinguishing where one ends and the other begins. Canadian undergraduates traditionally do a degree in one or the other, but even the most stringent of catalogers will end up admitting to the repeated intersection of the two, the interchangeability of both 'art' and 'science' to finish the phrase, "she has it down to a/an _____." Does 'science' mean precision? Does 'art' mean inspired? And does it even matter? It's exhibitions such as Body Works that remind us of the interdisciplinary nature of all elements of our world. If our bodies, the habitation of Reason, science's master, are no more than meat, no more than matter, then they don't matter as part of what makes us reasonable creatures. "We are more than matter," I expected Body Worlds to say. "But look at how beautiful this matter truly is."
And I don't think my expectations were unreasonable. Such intermingling of disciplines was commonplace during the Renaissance, when physicians were required to have over six years of humanist education in classical languages and rhetoric before beginning their studies of the body. Citing Renaissance artists and anatomists, Von Hagens claims to be working in the spirit of da Vinci and others by democratizing our understanding of the human form:
Von Hagens sees himself on a global mission to end the elitism of the medical profession which, he believes, has denied the lay public access to a better understanding of their own bodies. He hankers after the heady days of the renaissance and the three centuries thereafter, when anatomists and artists explored the workings of the human body as never before and made their workings public at anatomical theatres.
"My work continues the scientific tradition whose recurring theme is that research should serve the general enlightenment."
And appropriately, the exhibit is segmented by jewel-toned fabric screens of quotations from Classical and Enlightenment philosophers propounding man's contemplative nature, coupled with attractive Renaissance engravings and sketches in pen and ink. Da Vinci's art features heavily, and the requisite Shakespeare quotation indicates appropriate reverence for the body in Hamlet's "What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in
faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how
like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this
quintessence of dust?" (Bemused, I noted that the following line ["Man delights not me; no, nor woman neither,
though by your smiling you seem to say so"] was gravely absent.)
In a similar vein, piecemeal musings on life and death are everywhere. We're told Epicurus said to "Get used to the idea that Death should not matter to us,for good and evil are based on sensation. Death, however is the cessation of all sensation. Hence, Death, ostensibly the most terrifying of all evils, has no meaning for us, for as long was we exist, Death will not be present. When Death comes, we will no longer be in existence." The uncontexted echoes of Kant, Nietzsche and Foucault also appear to excuse our fascination with the dead and voice their endorsement of this kind of didactic voyeuristic display.
And yet, before the exhibit was half over, I was troubled. In art, I am accustomed to seeing female bodies rendered for my consumption, the 'gentleness' or 'strength' or 'beauty' of my sex offered for my appreciative, feasting gaze, the curves of the female body evoking 'bounty' or 'fertility' or 'vulnerability.' But there were no women on display. Von Hagens' figurines were man after man after man: The Pole Vaulter, The Skateboarder, The Thinker. There was no question of their maleness - their genitals were displayed with no more or less thought than the rest of their exposed bodies, testes positioned relative to the penis, as Sandor pointed out, "a little too much like earrings for comfort."
I'd expected to see few women, but not none. Before arriving, I'd read the Science Centre's FAQ on the exhibit, which mentioned the lack of women on display, and claimed
Sensitive to perceived community concerns, Dr. Von Hagens did not want to appear voyeuristic in revealing too many female bodies. He sees himself in the tradition of Renaissance anatomists, whose works traditionally included far more masculine than feminine bodies, since all but the reproductive systems are essentially the same. The musculature of male bodies is generally more pronounced and illustrates more aspects of the muscle system.
The organs on display come primarily from the female body donors. However, since opening the exhibition, Dr. Von Hagens has received numerous requests from women visitors to see more examples of female anatomy.
But halfway through, there were still no visible women, and since gender is irrelevant to a plastinated organ, the pointlessness of Von Hagens' assertion that women were included in this way was abundantly clear. Similarly inane is his claim that Renaissance anatomists weren't interested in women's bodies for dissection - sanctioned autopsies were frequently limited to the bodies of criminals who'd been executed by the state, a category that was largely male. Claiming that early anatomists had some kind of tacit understanding of the similarities between male and female anatomies before their investigations on the subject had taken place is simply post hoc reasoning for what is obviously Von Hagens' personal bias. Rather than indicating the Everyman concept of "we are all equal under our skin," the exhibit continually seemed to suggest only that women's bodies were simply not interesting enough for this kind of medical unveiling.
Unless, of course, they're pregnant.
Right when the absence of female bodies became disturbingly conspicuous, turning a corner, we were confronted by a choice. On our right the exhibit carried on in much the same way as before, with exploded and reassembled bodies interrupting case after case of organs. On the left was a shielded black tunnel of fabric with a large placard declaring that before she had died, the figurine inside had known she was ill and that she was unlikely to survive her pregnancy. Unlike any other figurine in the exhibit, this cause of death - cancer - was declared, and the figurine's blackened lung exposed from behind just as the nestled fetus in its womb could be seen in the front. Surrounding the pregnant figure on either side were plastinated fetuses encased in glass and resting on black velvet like tiny Elizabethan courtiers. These pieces of man-matter, we're told, were "over 80 years old, and, as far as we can determine, died of natural causes," as if such a fact should matter in an exhibit determined to detail the material nature of the body. Surely, I thought - in this place at the very least, shouldn't we recognize that all death is natural? And if all flesh, whether male or female, is essentially similar flesh, why should this former woman and these ounces of once pre-humanity be given a distinction beyond that granted to any other body in the exhibit? Why does sex - and politics - matter NOW? And why HERE?
There's a simple answer, of course, one that comes up again and again, charted repeatedly by me and others: the female body is special because it is not male. And because it is not male, we have to treat it differently. The female body - especially when gestating - is everyone's property in a way that a male body could never be, and so this figurine, alone of all others, is encased in glass to protect it from abusively well-wishing public - a few years ago, someone tried to cover one of Von Hagens' pregnant artifacts with a blanket, and when the exhibit was in LA, one of the plastinated fetuses was stolen.
But as I stood there investigating the way a fetus pushes a woman's organs up into her ribcage, trying to ignore the artificial eyelashes fluttering down at me, I wondered about the effect of shielding fabric tunnel I was in. Watching other people watch the figure, I realized that this "choose your own adventure" motif wasn't so much to protect the figurine from the audience as much as it was to protect the audience from the figurine. The fact that this piece was pregnant is somehow more controversial than the exhibit of plastinated dead bodies itself. You'd think that people who'd forked over $25/head to be fascinated and disturbed by the remains of their fellow humans in grotesque displays of showmanship would be able to accept the fact that women's bodies can be rendered this way too, and that women's bodies are uniquely the places where human reproduction happens.
But the curators of Body Worlds position the first female body in their exhibit away from the rest of material humanity, flanking it with associated prebodies as if this creature is somehow universalized by her pregnancy to be the ur-mother of us all. Pregnancy may be a uniquely female phenomenon, but it certainly isn't the only quality of the female body, and yet Body Worlds ignores the female form entirely until it is forced by inescapable biology to acknowledge its existence. Musculature may be, as Von Hagens claims, more pronounced in men, but is the skeleton? the nervous system? the arteries? The pregnant figure's positioning is a subtle but meaningful indication of women's inherent value as human beings.
After this point, a few more female figurines appear for the consumption of our gaze, but all are labeled with gender-specific monikers. "The X-Lady"'s body has been split across itself, while "The Yoga Lady" arches in a backbend. Only "The Angel," her splayed shoulder blades fanned behind her as if in flight, manages what could be in another context a gender-neutral term. But these former women are not universalized figurines in the way that their male-bodied counterparts are teachers, chess-players or thinkers. One wonders whether had a female body been used in a contemplative pose she would have been called "The Thinking Lady." Once again, the default body is male, and as I leave, I wonder whether Von Hagens' endorsement of Renaissance anatomists also includes their adoption of Aristotelian ideas of female inferiority:
As we said one can easily identify the causes of birth as the male and the female, the male as the cause of change and development, the female as the supplier of the material.
...It is clear, then, that the female's role in birth is the material one, that this is to found in the menstrual emission and that the menstrual emission is an excretion.
...The male and the female differ from each other in the possession of an ability and in the lack of an ability. The male is able to concoct, formulate and to ejaculate the sperm which contains the origin of the form [of the being to be born]-I do not mean here the material element out of which it is born resembling its parent but the initiating formative principle whether it acts within itself or within another. The female, on the other hand, is that which receives the seed but is unable to formulate or to ejaculate it.
In the exit, we paused to examine the books of comments left by Body Worlds' visitors. At least once on every page, in flowing script to childish scrawl to capital prose, someone requested "more women" or asked, "where were all the female bodies?" The concerted effort to demonstrate the man in Everyman, it seemed, was unsubtly, universally male - and it was a shame. Instead of demonstrating the similarities between men and women as flesh and sinew and blood and bone - and in this case, plastic - Body Worlds only highlighted its own bias. Didactically, the exhibit is a success - these are the fibres that connect the kneecap to the leg, this is what a heart attack looks like - but emotionally and theoretically as an examination of the human, it was a bust. Perhaps it was too much to expect gender parity from a traveling exhibition designed to showcase a revolutionary new technique in tissue preservation, but I'd hoped to see more thought from those who claim inspiration from the equitable ideals of Humanism.
It matters, I think, what matter we're made of, and it's something that it certainly is worth $25 to see. But mattering equally, I think, is what we don't see. And why.