Body Worlds: a provocative exhibition of the dead

2012-11-14 06:31

Curiosity compelled me to see the acclaimed exhibition of plastinated corpses, Body Worlds, to know how I'd react to the ‘exhibits' on an emotional level.

When we first mentioned this as a family outing to our ten year old son, hubby explained: ‘The skins've been stripped, there's just muscle, sinews, maybe bones, and the bodies are posing, playing tennis and guitar...’

‘I don't care what they're playing, no thanks, I don’t wanna see dead bodies!’ yelled Al.

We'd managed to reduce what's really a breath-taking and thought provoking exhibition, described by many as a testament to the miracle and vulnerability of life, to a freak show in under thirty seconds.

In fact, at the exhibition, I found myself so desensitized (by years of movie special effects) that it was difficult to come to terms with these ‘donors’ as having once been living human beings. On account of the preservation process, there is a sense of artificiality about them. And I admit, while examining what was once warm flesh and blood, I'd expected to feel more. I wanted the Body Worlds exhibit to punch me in the gut. I wanted it to be the profound experience I was hoping for.

As an anatomy lesson it's an entrée to the spectacularly complex and equally vulnerable body. It's a testament to our cycle of life as we develop from the single cell, through ageing to death. To quote the hubby, ‘Jo,’ he said, ‘your mother was a beautiful woman in her thirties, she ended up an old woman. It’s the way it works.’

(I prefer Ursula Andress’s sentiment: ‘What is important is one’s love of life; then age won’t matter.’)

The exhibition shows a cross section of the sexual pairing, the penis as it fits into the vaginal cavity; foetuses with every tiny crease on angled feet are preserved; full bodies are shown in action – the rugby player, the bionic woman, the high jumper; the exhibits include a breast riddled with cancer, blackened smoker's lungs, a cross section of the torso of an obese heart attack victim. It is not only a humbling reminder that the body is a machine with extraordinary ability for strength, flexibility, coordination; it a lesson in health and disease and how we can best look after ourselves.

But what was brought home to me was that although we're a complex network of sinews, veins, muscles, tissue, bone - we're also so much more. Looking into the physical body was fascinating, but it was also a reminder of what it is that truly makes us who we are – our feelings, our “soul”, and the love that moves us.

No wonder it was the men and women, the complete bodies posed with props, that I found most compelling. Not because of the emphasis on the working body, but because the props are suggestive of the activities of living – a saxophone is suggestive of  jazzy tunes, the melancholy riff of the blues that can only be created by breath; the steersman, pulling on his wheel, suggestive of keeping people safe in stormy seas.

This then, is what I missed. I wanted to know more about the anonymous donors, the once alive people. The focus, rightly so, is not on the tragedy of their deaths, but I missed their humanity, their life stories.  What were their ages, their dreams? What had driven them? How had they lived and how had they died?

Contrary to other pieces, the ‘cut in half head’ as the exhibit is titled, retains the skin. This plastinated head, of an overweight middle aged man, is sliced in cross section. All the pieces, the brain in relation to the skull, the tongue the nose, fit together as tight as a well-made jigsaw puzzle.

But again, I found myself leaning closer, staring not into the head, at the interior workings, but at the elements that made this man human to me. The mole on his cheek, the stubble at his chin, a freckle on his scalp. His ginger eyelashes and unruly eyebrows; the crows feet at the heavily hooded closed eyes. The swarthy set of his flesh, the creases behind his neck spoke of a man who’d enjoyed his life. I hope so. It was a reminder too that the face, the part of the human anatomy we respond to first, holds the more obvious story.

I wanted more information to animate the donors to life in my imagination. I know this would be contrary to the point of the exhibition and to the donors’ wishes, but to me this was my profound aha moment: I could not look at a body without imagining the person, the energy that animated that body. It is the ‘story’ of the body that makes life precious.

‘From the point of view of youth,’ wrote the philosopher Schopenhauer, ‘life is an endless future; from the perspective of Age, it is a brief past. You must grow old, and have lived for a long time, before you understand how short life is.’

The exhibition is not only a tribute to the leaps and bounds made by science and medicine over the years, but is a powerful reminder that life doesn't last, and that the physical body tells only part of the story of what it is to be human.

And my son? He breezed past the plastinated bodies, more interested in getting to see the 'real' plastic on display at Toy Kingdom next door....

Body Worlds is on show at the Cape Town Waterfront till 31 January 2013


AB praises selfless skipper

2010-11-21 18:15

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