Frankenstein with a Gift Shop 

Monday, October 16, 2006

More on Body Worlds:

Science World devoted some four galleries to the display, along with a Body Worlds gift shop. The full-body displays have no glass covers, allowing for close-up viewing, with a descriptive panel that labelled body parts and perhaps a short blurb on the plastination techniques used. The body parts lay in flat display cases and featured more information about bodily functions than the full-body displays. The much-discussed fetus display came at the end, with an alternate exit for those who can't handle dead babies.

While the audience was mostly adult, some parents brought their elementary school age, adorable little kids who were not squeamish about what they saw. "Mommy, why does that man have three penises?" asked one little girl, who was answered that the two penis-y things flanking the penis were testicles. Other groups of children sat down in front of the bodies to discuss what they were seeing. Near the end, some kids were begging their parents to hurry to the fetus section: "Let's go see the babies, daddy!"

As I walked through, I was too caught up in examining the bodies to think much about the museum practices behind the displays.

First of all, I am not entirely convinced of the educational aspects of the show. Then again, I have had friends in medical studies, so I've had the benefit of poring through autopsy books and fiddled with bones from UBC's bone library. The visitors yesterday were a mixture of those pointing out their ailments on the corpses - one middle aged man used his umbrella tip to give his two friends a description of his achilles heel problems; others claiming they will stop or avoid taking up smoking as attested by the guestbook at the very end of the exhibit.

While the display of organs in the flat display cases carried actual information, the full-body displays made much of the fact that they contained a certain amount of artistic flare, with very little biological information aside from the labelling of body parts. The flayed man has a Renaissance pedigree; the kneeling man in prayer harks back to the Medieval era.

Indeed, the exhibit gives prominent place to a copy of Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, with a line that Dr. Tulp alone wears a hat, defying contemporary manners. The Body Worlds website has a photograph of von Hagens himself wearing a hat during a dissection and he devotes a page on his website to that hat, bringing up German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys' name.

Von Hagens has exhibited many times in art galleries, instead of scientific museums. In the UK, he performed the first public autopsy for a paying audience at a London art gallery. The 72-year-old German alcoholic whose organs were removed is now in the Body Worlds 2 exhibit.

Part of the motivation to display the bodies artistically comes from copyright issues. With at least nine rival shows - some have counted eleven shows - von Hagens has gone to court to stop two of the shows, arguing that his poses have copyright protection as intellectual property (the plastination technique is patented).

In my opinion, with both a background in art history and in museum studies, I question the educational quality of the exhibit, as I see the full-body displays in stark contrast with the more "educational" isolated body parts. The full-body displays serve only a marketing value. Their short names ("The Skateboarder," "The Archer," etc.) sometimes carry puzzling names more suitable to super heroes ("The Star Man"), clearly meant to be memorable and generate talk that outlasts the visit for word-of-mouth promotion.

Though he claims to be a scientist and not an entertainer, von Hagens is no stranger to sideshow-era gimmicks: in 1995, his plastinate of a pregnant woman cut up to reveal a fetus travelled around Berlin on a bus to promote the first Body Worlds. Another time, Von Hagens took part in Berlin's Love Parade dressed as a plastinate. Von Hagens has been called a 21st century Dr. Frankenstein with a gift shop: to exit the gallery, one must walk through a gift shop selling cadaver fridge magnets, keychains, postcards, posters and books.

In addition, some controversy surrounds Body Worlds with regards to the displays of the female donors' plastinates. Some have said that the female poses are in traditional feminine poses, though my companion and I disagreed on this aspect. While I did find the poses were athletic for the most part, I have to agree that the females did fall into the more feminine camp: a trapeze artist, a gymnast, a dancer, and an archer (remember the Amazons?).

I was also annoyed that the females had nipples intact. None of the male bodies had nipples. My companion argued that female nipples are harder to remove and that their remains did not turn the female bodies into sex objects.

In the case of the gymnast, a full head of blonde hair remained attached to the scalp. Its presence, if from the original body, serves to make the donor's identity less anonymous, going against the exhibit's profession that the donors' identities or personal information be revealed. I found the hair also a sexualizing feature: it "humanized" the corpse, making it resemble a living woman and thus palatable to sexual tastes. Interestingly, in another case, a male body has had the remains of an dark upper lip dyed red; my suspicion is that the donor may have been black, though none of the "white" skinned donors have had the remainders of their light skin dyed.

Von Hagens has issued a questionnaire to current donors to ask if they would object to their bodies being used in sexual poses. Most men were delighted, the women were aghast. Though he has yet to create a tableau of the sexual union, near the end of the Science World exhibit was a pairing of a man and a woman in an embrace. I presumed they were dancers or figure skaters, though from a distance the action is hard to distinguish. This display's proximity to the reproductive organ display allows the viewer to come to the wrong conclusion.

An interesting observation regarding the female bodies comes from my male companion. After the exhibit, he told me that when he viewed the female reproductive organs, he was the only male at that display case. Later, when he came by the female table again to talk to me, he was again the only male in that area. The table with the male reproductive organs had both female and male audience members surrounding it.

In speculating about the lack of male viewers at the female table, I am guessing that either the men were too embarrassed to look at these body parts, too wary of being deemed lecherous, or simply not interested in female functions. If it is the latter, my question to male readers is why?

Finally, I am unconvinced by the claims within the show that all the bodies come from donors.

Until recently von Hagens used unclaimed bodies from abroad, certainly not the consenting donors purported by the show's copy. Furthermore two of his plastination factories are in China's harbour city Dalian and in the Central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan, where laws concerning the dead are not as stringent or, as in the well-documented case of China, unconsenting prisoners have had their organs removed.

According to former Kyrgyz member of parliament Akbokon Tashtanbekov, von Hagen's institution "obtained more than 800 dead bodies from prisons, psychiatric wards and hospitals, which hadn't always notified the families." Bodies from prisons sold for $13 to $15 each; the youngest body came from a 14-hour-old child.

One of the saddest stories was of Kishinbek Mamakiev, a 71-year-old from Bishkek, who died from a brain hemorrhage in 2000. He went out for a walk, collapsed on the street and was taken to a hospital. The family had no idea what happened, and spent three years looking for the man in hospitals and morgues. They put ads on tv asking for information. Three years ago Tashtanbekov found Mamakiev's name in the plastination center.

Though in 2001 van Hagens broke off with Valery Gabitov, head of the medical academy's pathology department and supplier of bodies, he continues to reap Kyrgyz corpses through another body donor program in the country. German prosecutors have found that all the bodies are accounted for, linking death certificates to consent forms. Still, how did Kishinbek Mamakiev's disappear for three years and why did his name end up in the paper work at von Hagens' centre?

The danger is, with an uninformed public, is that vast monetary support will go to Body Worlds knock-offs, who might not be as scrupulous as von Hagens or, not as documented.

For example, according to NPR, BODIES... The Exhibition (currently in Seattle), created by Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions Inc., does not hide the fact that they use unclaimed Chinese bodies. Spokesman Roy Glover says, "We don't hide from it, we address it right up front." Created by Dr. Sui Hongjin, a one-time student of von Hagens', I went to the BODIES... The Exhbition website to see how up front they were about the bodies' provenence. The faces were instantly recognizable as East Asian. The FAQ, however, did hide the questions about where the bodies came from. FAQ questions 7-10, which answer this very question, are linked to from the bottom of FAQ questions 1-6. The site warns that "It is important to note that the law prohibits he disclosure of any information regarding the specimen's identity and/or cause of death."

While some 30 Canadians have signed up to donate their bodies to von Hagens, I suspect the majority of viewers would be loathe to imagine their own dead bodies on a pedestal, twisted and sliced into artistic renderings. That some of the bodies are there without the consent of the donors ring a little too much of Burke and Hare, the nineteenth century murderers who sold 17 victims to the Edinburgh Medical College for dissection. That the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London to this day still dishonours poor Charles Byrne's - "The Irish Giant" - explicit deathbed wishes should be warning to those who wish to lay down rules for the fate of their bodies.

The attitude I hope you won't have is the following, from one of the comments left on the naysayer campaigners's site:
My friends and I went to the exhibit last week (thinking it was a movie) and I was having a great time at the beginning criticizing all the models until my friend read a sign saying that some of them were real!!!!
Sarah, Denver, CO

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I am pretty ambivalent on this issue. The ethics of the cadaver trade are pretty tangly, and the industry itself shrouded in secrecy. It is unfortunate and regrettable that some of the bodies are used without permission, and what goes on in Chinese prisons is unsavory and lamentable...but does a more noble fate await those bodies that are not sold abroad? Or will they just be dumped in a pit somewhere, still unclaimed and anonymous? If a body has no family or friend to claim it, I believe it should become the property of the state, to be used as will best benefit the people as a whole. These people's lives were taken while they were living -- if they were unjustly imprisoned and executed, the state has already "stolen" them, and they can't be given back in any meaningful way.

I believe in extracting the maximum utility possible from everything, including the dead. I have no belief in any spiritual attachment to the body...I am fully of the opinion that the dead cannot care about their mortal remains. Their wishes are to be respected, of course, but the most important thing is those left living. Funerals are for families, not the dead. If bodies can be used, they should be -- they should be treated as the possessions of the inheritors. If they are valuable -- for medical research, organ donation, or artistic/scientific exhibits -- then the families should be allowed to sell them and receive market value compensation. (I do not agree with the current practices whereby bodies are voluntarily donated for free and then sold to hospitals, organ recipients, medical schools, etc. for lavish profit by intermediaries.)

As for the exhibit itself, I don't think it needs to be purely scientific to justify itself. Being able to view in detail the internal parts of the human body is surely enriching, and it's no crime to be interested or entertained.

I realize, of course, that all my comments have been essentially in support -- but plenty has already been said against, and it's also fairly convincing. So, I remain ambivalent.

I think there is currently an exhibition somewhere in New York, no? I may try to go see it.
While I believe in extracting the maximum utility, I am against using the bodies of those who have not given their permission for many reasons.

My first reason is, human selfishness being what it is, some people may be killed with organ harvesting in the mind of the murderer. Then there are the imaginary crimes or light crimes used to snatch away life from the innocent or someone who just made a dumb mistake - I feel, in the case of dictatorships in particular, that "crimes" are judged and sentences passed with the profit at the end in mind.

My second reason is, why should someone profit financially off the dead, or the living for that matter, while the donor or their family doesn't get anything. For example, in the seventies, a cancer patient had some cells extracted from him, that turned out to show some immunity to the disease. His cells were used to make millions for the pharmaceutical company, but none for the man. I believe it went to court, but the man never got any of the money made from his body. Ditto for copyrighting the human body and its poses - will this one day mean that no human can sit cross-legged or stand on their tiptoes because some "artist" has laid claim to it?

My third reason is that corpse-exhibitioning is as bad as voyeuristic pornography. Say that someone takes a photo of you in the bathroom, privates in full glory, and puts it online. You don't know anything about it, but millions of horny teenage boys and a number of lecherous middle-aged men have jacked off to your image. Even if you never find out, would you be ok with your image online?

On the other hand, the exhibit convinced me that abortion must be allowed at almost all stages of the pregnancy or, for the squeamish, until the 25th week. One of the reasons is because I believe a human being should have complete autonomy over their bodies, including the diseases and, in the case of fetuses, the parasites contained therein.

I agree that it isn't a crime to look, but I wonder why people want to look. I don't think it is for any educative purpose; either that or people don't realize that they've been taken for a ride by van Hagens who hardly bothers to label anything. Nor do I have any religious or spiritual basis for my beliefs regarding this show. I completely disagree with the reasons that religious naysayers of Body Worlds have used. I see my reasons as purely practical ones, that of survival, and of preserving one's life, in the face of a rather sinister growing demand for organ harvesting.

This issue has so many shades of grey, I think everyone who has an opinion on this will never convince the other side.

Thank you, Bluewyvern, for providing the other point of view. :)
Thank you for writing such an excellent and detailed entry on Bodyworlds.

I went to see it last week and felt the whole thing was rather disturbing and crass. I found it to be a show about spectacle and entertainment, thinly disgused as an educational experience, for much of the same reasons you've stated. It disturbs me to know that some of the bodies on display are people who did not consent to be there.

And ending the experience in a giftshop filled with corpse-branded merchandise was just....wrong.
Thanks for the comment, Rachael. I appreciate hearing this from you, as you are a photographer of the human form, i.e. you appreciate the human body.

(I saw the photo you took at the nude show at that gallery whose name I forgot...I think it was in the same space as the Contemporary Asian Gallery was.)

Interestingly, I went to the Vancouver Centennial Police Museum on Monday, where they have body parts on display as well. I think it was the lack of artifice in the displays there that made the efforts of that Museum less questionable. Nevertheless, I still felt queasy being in a former morgue alone.
Thank you for giving so much information about the exhibit, and for such a thoughtful discussion. I have been trying to decide whether or not I will go to see Body Worlds, and this is useful food for thought.

I'm still a bit incredulous that Body Worlds even exists. I kind of feel as if I've missed 20 years of cultural evolution somewhere along the line.
John and I went to see Body Worlds when it was in Chicago. We expected to be either educated or horrified or amazed or ... or anything. After the first few bodies, we were slightly bored. The show didn't really do a good job in teaching us anything except that some people have really compacted bowels. But the bodies and what had happened to them was so distancing that we may have been looking at modern art (which it is, and not to our liking).

And most everyone I know who went to it, even the straight guys, were mostly interested in talking about the way the testicals, freed from the bondage of the scrotum, hung down like Christmas tree bulbs.
Mandy: It's hard to decide whether or not to go. I recalled when I went that I had seen two similar exhibits, one in Seattle at a store where they have one or two recent mummies, and a medical museum attached to a Thai hospital. Well, and the pickled fetuses in one of my high schools. The Thai hospital museum really frightened me, not in a horror movie way, but rather in a way that I felt weak and ready to disintegrate at any moment. I had decided after that that I would never go to such a museum again. Before I went to Body Worlds, I thought it would be more educational and not at all like the Thai museum. I really thought it would be different.

Anyhow, since having been to the show, I am myself getting to be incredulous that such a show exists.

Proxy Indian: I was slightly bored too, though my horror grew as I got further and further in. Yes, and I thought it was a little too much like modern art - I couldn't help thinking of the Nazi lampshades.

"Freed from the Bondage of the Scrotum" - could this be a title for graphic novel, based on the adventures of a newly freed testicle?
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