Yesterday, Camilla posted an excellent review of the recently opened “BODIES – the exhibition” (Edit: it is in fact “Bodies revealed” that is currently on display in Tivoli). I was lucky enough to see it as well, and I agree whole-heartedly with Camilla’s opinion of the exhibition. Like her, I was struck by how lacklustre the exhibition seemed compared to Body Worlds/Körperwelten, and it made me want to reiterate some points I made in an essay on Body Worlds some years ago (“Nocsce te ipsum – “Körperwelten” og den guddommelige krop”, Passepartout 18, Institut for Kunsthistorie, Århus Universitet, 2001).

In the essay, I pointed to the fact that Body Worlds draws much of its strength from its alignment with the anatomical tradition from the Renaissance. Without delving deeper into the argument, I argued that Body Worlds and the anatomical tradition from the Renaissance intersect at the point where anatomy becomes a form of knowledge of self, as part of the dicta of Nosce te ipsum – know thyself.

It touches upon the fact that knowledge of oneself and the world more generally isn’t just a matter of facts and logic, just as science isn’t only a matter of adding yet another millimetre to the yard stick of our accumulated knowledge. It is a matter of existential concern as well, a matter care for the world, ourselves and the people around us. Body Worlds is in a sense a way of wresting anatomical knowledge out of the clinical hands of modern science, as well as those who would tell us what to make of it, and instead show it in all its materiality as an existential mirror: this is you, too. Make of it what you will.

Body Worlds follows the Renaissance tradition in that it attempts to transcend the boundaries between experience and representation, between sensing and sense-making, between our knowledge of the world and our concern for ourselves – it perceives of its subject matter as inherently relevant for both sides of the dichotomies, and thus shifts the balance between experience and education.

The experience is the education, but what you learn is not written down in a curriculum. It is not a set of facts that needs to be processed (digested, perhaps), nor is the content of the experience fixed: it will mean something more or less different to the spectators, due to the mirroring nature of the bodies on display. What you learn is what you experience from standing face to face/body to body with the materiality of corporeal existence, literally stripped to the bone.

And because the exhibition refrains from a heavy-handed sort of pedagogic didactic, the viewer is left on her own to sense and make sense in whatever way their existential concerns brings them. There is no requirement to interpret the bodies on display from a fixed or correct ‘scientific’ viewpoint, and instead the fascination of the fleshy vehicle is given freer reins. Displaying the dead body, animated to life and not boxed away in pedagogic representations, awakens the existential sense of self. It opens for the possibility of an existentially relevant experience of a bodily character. Those sort of experiences are few and far between – and I found none of them in BODIES – the exhibition Bodies Revealed.

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  • Diane

    We currently have Bodies revealed on display in Redding Ca and while I myself, being the overly squemish sort, did not experience the whole thing, We have had nothing but great reviews from the people who have seen it. They have called in and written things. They have spent hours in there viewing this exhibit. We also have great volunteers including those from the medical profession who have been on hand to answer many of the questions. We only have a small portion of the exhibit here but it has gotten an amazing response. So I think maybe it is all in the eye of the beholder. Just a thought!

    Thank you.

  • joe

    I visited Body Worlds 2 at Chicago last year twice, it was amazing. I recently visited Bodies in New York and it was a sad attempt to recreate Body Words. It looked like dissections were done with a plastic knife held by high school anatomy students.

  • Stephanie

    In the mid 90’s I originally saw a documentary on Gunther von Hagen and was instantly swewpt into his wonderful world. I saw Bodyworlds for the first time in London around 2000 and then again in Vancouver in 2006 (ish). I was so so impressed with the quality of work, the history, the way that art and science had been brought together into one. I am absolutley a huge fan with the utmost respect for his craft… as I am sure most fans are. This last week, I was in Las Vegas and knew that “Bodies” was on exhibit there. I knew that name was a little different, but figured it was just the Las Vegas incarnation of the exhibit. I had always thought that Gunther von Hagen had patented the plastination process and thus was the only one preforming it. I WAS SO WRONG.

    I firstly thought, why are the tickets about 1/4 the price of the shows I have seen before??? Then we were greated by a man dressed up as a doctor telling me all of the bodies we from China??? I was so confused. This corny set up and entrance go us down right from the get go.

    Anyways, to make a long story short… The “Bodies” exhibit was nothing more than a very bad rip off of Bodyworlds. It displayed only 9 full bodies along with all of the separate specemins. The quality was so poor and lacked the artistic flair of Bodyworld. They attempted to display the bodies in artistic and sports poses like those at Bodyworld and copied their disection methods, cross sections of the body, fetal area, diseases… everything. It is just so sad that it is all so poorly executed.

    It is apparent why another institution would want to try and copy Bodyworlds, but it has been shown that this craft truly does belong to Gunther von Hagen. Do not waste your time or money on ANY imposters.

  • camilla

    You are truly right, all though I think the subject is broad enough to cover a lot of good exhibitions and the plastination technique is not patented to Gunther von Hagen (as far as I know). In my opinion the problem with “The bodies exhibition” is that it is not clear what the exhibition wants to tell other than ‘have a look inside the body’ (see also my former blogpost on the subject). Anyhow, Los Angeles is only 5 hours drive from Las Vegas where one of the Body Worlds exhibitions is on the show right now.

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