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.