Death Stories: Slice, Part 7

One of the sculptures is a man skinned and split longitudinally, his separate muscular halves standing a foot or so apart.  Between the halves, his brain and spinal column are propped in mid-air.  Attached to this central section in the appropriate places are his eyeballs and lungs.  The rest of the viscera have been removed from their usual positions for clear viewing; the hands are holding them.

The “sculpture” is not a representation, but an actual human body infused with plastic, one of twenty in the exhibition.  Another is a man posed as if running.  He is naked to his muscles, and the muscles themselves peel open to show underlying structures--like bouquets of flowers, as their creator says.  Besides more-or-less whole bodies, the exhibition contains two hundred other pieces, mostly sections or single organs.  Some of these are healthy specimens--an inside view of the brain and nasal structures, for example.  Others show pathologies--from brain hemorrhage to cirrhosis to constipation.

The man responsible is Gunther von Hagens, an East German refugee who was associated with the University of Heidelberg until 1998?, when he resigned to start his own company.  In the late 1970s, Von Hagens found he could preserve human tissue through a high-tech process of infusion.  His process replaced the water and fat cells in human flesh with polymers, leaving the tissues almost unchanged in appearance except for an added sheen--as if they had been laminated.  Flesh so treated does not rot. Von Hagens estimates it will last 100,000 years.

Plastinated organs and body sections soon turned up in medical schools, mortuary schools, chiropractic training centers.  Pathologists could keep plastinated organs--normal or diseased--on hand for comparison.  Skeletons had always been available for study, and organs had been pickled and kept in museums and teaching hospitals, but von Hagens made it possible for any medical facility to have the necessary study specimens on hand--not models, but the real thing, and not pickled, but suitable for handling.  They could be flexible or firm, depending on the recipe used.  The only maintenance these plastinated pieces required was to be wiped clean after a few handlings.  And unlike the plastic-encased “round steak” Vic Spitzer had showed me, von Hagens’s specimens retained the color and shape of living organs.

Nobody objected to von Hagens’s anatomical specimens as long as they stayed in strictly scientific settings.  The trouble started when the good doctor discovered what he calls “gestalt plastination,” a method of infusing a reasonably whole body.  To complicate the issue, von Hagens stood the bodies up and posed them.  They looked like sculpture.  Von Hagens arranged for exhibitions in Europe, the US, and Japan, which combined to draw millions.

In Germany, Catholic and Protestant leaders pressured politicians to stop the shows.  “He who styles human corpses as a so-called work of art no longer respects the importance of death,” proclaimed Catholic theologian Johannes Reiter.  The churches prefer to keep their “monopoly on burial,” von Hagens explained.  “I’m described as a Frankenstein.”  In Japan, people had no problem with the all-Caucasian exhibits until von Hagens mentioned his shocking ambition of plastinating a Japanese.  Other objections came from fellow anatomists, who said the exhibits were too complex for the lay public.  Most of his critics, von Hagens noted, had not actually seen his exhibitions.  As a public event, von Hagens’s installations had more in common with the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe than with anatomy texts.

I phoned von Hagens in Switzerland, where he was supervising a show, to ask him about these objections.  His defense of his work took on political overtones.  “It’s democratic,” he said.  “The layman is given back what he lost 200 years ago.”  He referred to his own past in Communist East Germany; his current work, he said, is a form of “body liberation.”  The objections to his work are, in his view, not unlike the prudery that often attends sexual and excretory matters.

But seeing his exhibits is liberating in a deeper sense.  Van Hagens describes rowdy teens who “come to see something ghostly, ugly," but instead fall silent with something like awe. "They find themselves anew,” he adds. Viewers decide on the spot to donate their bodies, and von Hagens’s people are happy to sign them up.  One young woman even decided against suicide after seeing the exhibit.

All this sounds rather spiritual, but von Hagens doesn’t deny that some see the exhibits and find them repellent.  The showings average about one fainting per day.  And there are some exhibits that a number of visitors choose to skip--mostly malformed fetuses, which von Hagens obtained as slowly degrading pickled specimens from medical schools and made permanent.  Among the plastinated adults is a skinned woman with her womb opened to show the five-month-old fetus she was carrying.

Is this art, or just death imitating art?  Von Hagens is careful about his answers.  “I call it anatomy art--but the definition of art needs interpretation.  It’s an aesthetic, instructive presentation of the body’s interior.  It’s enlightening science; it’s between science and art.  It produces feelings like art; many say it is art.”  People have compared his work to that of various artists, including the “exploded” anatomies of Dali, a resemblance von Hagens explains as similar challenges yielding similar solutions.

All right, then.  Does he consider himself an artist?  “I see myself as an inventor primarily.”  He says his methods are like those of an artist, and he’s not afraid to use the word beautiful.  “I always dissect in my mind,” he said.  The twenty full-size pieces in this exhibit represent only a third of his designs; the rest are not yet built.  One unrealized project is two people spiral-cut and combined into one.  Another, finished since our talk, was a skinless horse and rider. Horse and human look surprisingly similar beneath the hide.

His trepidation about the word "art" seems to stem from the objections others have raised, in which art is a disparaging term.  Von Hagens wants his work seen as educational.  He does not, he points out, try for “aesthetic shock” of the sort that would occur if he transformed a penis into a vulva or a face into a Halloween mask.  His work is not transformation, but revelation.

Von Hagens maintains a taboo on individual identity.  Although the plastinated organs and sections he sells to medical schools sometimes come from the homeless and others whose bodies fall into government hands, he performs sheet plastination only on those who specifically donate their bodies for that purpose.  He changes their faces so they can’t be recognized--one of the few alterations he allows himself (another is glass eyes: real ones don’t preserve well).

“Anonymity is important to distinguish a mummy from a corpse,” he says.  More fine distinctions.  A corpse is a known person, whose death is an occasion for mourning.  A mummy is an educational exhibit, as well as a legacy.  Von Hagens says his mummies will outlast the Egyptian ones, and adds: “To the future belong human remains.”

I wish to work miracles. Maybe I'll have less than men with more peaceful lives, less than those who want to get rich in a day. I may live for a long time in great poverty, as always happens to alchemists, the would-be creators of gold and silver, and to engineers who would have dead water stir itself into life and perpetual motion, and to those supreme fools, the necromancer and the enchanter.
Leonardo da Vinci



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