Tuesday, May 1, 2018


He whose Gates are open'd in those Regions of the Body
Can from those Gates view all these wondrous Imaginations.
-          William Blake

Art criticism is not for me as a rule. I lack the knowledge. However I am interested in the intersections between art and other things, such as science and politics and activism. And I do enjoy things that make me feel uneasy, if it is for the right reasons.

This was all the wrong reasons. 

The Body Worlds exhibition is famous and has travelled the world.  It consists of several real human bodies which have been donated by their previous owners, and which have undergone a process of plastiination. Doctors have preserved and sterilised them so that their inner workings are in full and detailed view. You can see one in a swimming pose, cut lengthwise in half, so that some organs are on one side and some on the other.  Another is the body of an elderly man, showing how his body parts have weakened and slackened over time. There are also on display many real body parts such as bones, organs and systems displayed in order to show the processes of disease and decay. An example which intrigued the crowds was the cross section of a blackened and cancerous lung. 

All of this sounds somewhat confronting and this is my point. It’s not. Not at all. The exhibition was held at a hotel, and it was crowded. There was a wait list to get in. There were many families and children. It was a much more varied crowd than you would get at an exhibition at an art gallery, a ‘proper’ art exhibition.  Everyone was intrigued and thoughtful. People read the information and discussed it among themselves. Children asked questions. Nobody was disrespectful or rude.  The plastinated bodies were vivid with colour, which was slightly ironic. They were posed in glass cases where you could move right around them, to be drawn in by the details of tendon and nerve and the elaborate plait of muscle.  Around the walls and in other display cases, were videos and posters about health and disease. Adjacent to the displays of brains, there was a well-produced film about dementia. A large wall poster illustrated the dangers of sugar in the diet. The message was clear; this was an exhortation to health and physical wellbeing.. This was made more obvious by the fact that the exhibition was sponsored by a life insurance company. And - at the end we were invited to drop a token into a container to symbolise a pledge to a particular lifestyle change such as cutting down on alcohol or exercising more.

I didn’t like it at all. I left early. I did not want to drop my token into a container and make a pledge. I did not do it. 

The new friend I was with asked if I was a bit squeamish. Actually, I thought at the time, I am not squeamish enough. I could not fathom my discomfort. 

Now I can, a bit. 

Here are some analogous exhibitions, in that they are populist works that straddle art and science. As examples they may generate more heat than light, but that is my intent. 

The first ever neonatal unit was at Coney Island, and it was essentially a freakshow. Tiny premature babies were displayed for the public to gaze at and wonder. The doctor who ran this, invented the incubator. He would hear of a preemie baby, and take his big black car and go and get it. He employed only the strictest of standards of hygiene and only the strictest of nurses, whose moral behaviour was monitored. It was a seriously innovative business, and the babies survived and thrived from a state of prematurity that has not really been surpassed. It was also, as I said, a freakshow. The public got to look at the tiny little hands and marvel and learn. In its day it was considered slightly tasteless, as freakshows are of course, and it would never happen now. But this was how the first ever neonatal unit funded itself in the land of the free. In the few accounts I have read about it, the public were invited not to participate or interact or study, but frankly, to gawk. To wonder. 

Above is a link to one of many fairly thoughtful articles about the Anatomical Venus. She is an exquisite example of eighteenth century aestheticized science.  This is from a time when people were fascinated by anatomy and artists captured the wary eroticism of it with paintings of old male doctors spending too much time on their own with young female cadavers. Its piquancy comes from what I call High Transgression. It is not just being naughty. Anyone can break laws and norms unthinkingly and selfishly.  The purpose here is lofty and serous and knowing. And yet it is as dodgy as fuck and you just know that intuitively.  It is in the space of tension between lofty scientific  endeavour and Baudelaisian smut that High Transgression flourishes.

This transgressive space is necessarily difficult, but even more intuitively so when it comes to the body. The Body Worlds exhibition has been criticised by indigenous people and I can see why. It is not that it is disrespectful exactly.  Its fault is that it simply makes no account of what we know to be true – that the body is the site of the sacred and the profane all at once. Things that are inside the body should stay inside the body. Body fluids particularly are both sacred and profane once they leave the body; they are unclean and magical and curative and just plain dangerous. Things that are outside the body should be dealt with carefully before they go inside the body. We must not eat unclean food or take body fluids inside us once they have left someone’s insides. 

At Body Worlds, the bodies are beautiful, sanitised and somehow unreal. In the past, when body parts have been preserved, there has been the incipient threat of decay. Kick the jar over or make the solution too weak and nature takes its course. Plastination not only preserves, it perfects and perpetuates. Thus we are distanced from the real human bodies on display. We are voyeurs, we look and become curious and then we get to consider our health and our life styles and the take home message is something as specious as ‘Well I saw that black lung and I think I will quit smoking’. A message I can receive passively many times a day if I smoked.  We are never invited to wonder or to become passionate or shocked. Despite all the dire health warnings, we are never invited to see our bodies as the stinking, appalling, wonderful, ridiculous , exquisite, sensuous, dignified, changeable things they might be.

1 comment:

  1. Your thoughts on the Body Worlds exhibition is absolutely brilliant. It expresses precisely my own distaste, although I don’t think I could have pinpointed it so well. I too find it interesting that the spiritual enormity of what’s on display is reduced to health messages, as if these were simply a 3D version of the icky pics on cigarette packs. It is difficult to imagine the consent process for this sort of PT Barnum display … there was once a rumour that the corpses used were of executed Chinese prisoners, of which there is a plentiful supply … but who knows.
    As regards female 18th century anatomical models – I hadn’t seen these photos before, but I have to confess I find this scientific aestheticism terribly seductive – the beautiful finesse of the construction matches the beautiful finesse of the female model. Sex and death, the perfect couple. And how could the deathly personage be other than a beautiful (and intrinsically passive and sexually receptive) woman? Those youthful male med students (and they would have all been male in those days) would have found it disturbingly homo-erotic to root around in their own insides: they are the active delvers, after all; the woman must be she who is passively delved into.
    There’s a nineteenth-century equivalent in the story of Resusci Annie, a doll supposedly based on the death mask of a Parisienne suicide (needless to say, a young and lovely woman) and used ever since for CPR practice
    Well, who would want to practice CPR on an old and ugly man? Would you? Sex and death …
    Terrific blog. Thank you.