BODIES – THE EXHIBITION” [sorry, BODIES – REVEALED, cf. comment below] has arrived in Copenhagen, with the ensuing marketing push and massive media attention. The exhibition, which shows plastinated bodies and body parts, opened on 18 April in the H.C. Andersen Castle in Tivoli where the usual wax figures have been switched with real dead Chinese bodies.
The exhibition is structured in a very pedagogic manner. First, the skeleton is introduced followed by the different parts and functions of the body in a systematic manner, ending with the different stages of foetal development (incidentally the most impressive specimen which, rather tellingly – more of this later – is not plastinated but immersed in liquid, floating with transparent fragility).
The exhibit is displayed very nicely, and the texts are short, explanatory and pedagogic. If you have never seen a plastinated specimen before you can expect a great experience from being confronted with the inside of the body and with the very convincing presence of the real stuff. But if you have seen Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds, expect a real sense of disappointment. This is in part because of the craftsmanship – or lack thereof. The bodies are not nearly as well plastinated, the body parts are oddly bleached and misshaped, and details of the incredibly fine networks in the body are lacking.
Technically and in terms of craftsmanship, BODIES is not on the level of Body Worlds, and if anything one gains a new respect for Gunther von Hagens and the skills of his Institute for Plastination. Aesthetically, BODIES is a relatively tame experience in comparison to Body Worlds. One of the really fascinating aspects of Body Worlds is the play between the sculptured bodies and their relationship to famous anatomical drawings from the Renaissance where the classical poses are used to display important aspects of the body’s anatomy. One example of these references to the Renaissance in Body Worlds is Juan Valverde de Amusco’s Anatomia del Corpo Humano from 1559, in which a figure is holding its own skin draped across its arm. It is beautiful, fascinating and a bit grotesque, and demonstrates superbly that the skin is the largest organ of the body.
Another sculpture in Body Worlds shows a flayed horseman on a rearing horse, together forming an impressive statue. The horseman holds in his one hand his own brain and in the other that of the horse, thus making clear why the horseman controls the horse and not the other way around. This union of artistic sensibility and anatomical knowledge is completely absent from BODIES since it does not use the body as an aesthetic expression. All the many complex layers present in Body Worlds are peeled away in BODIES, and only the soothing, pedagogical and didactic one is left – and it becomes boring rather quickly.
A final difference worth mentioning is the fact that the bodies in BODIES are Chinese, while the ones in Body Worlds for the most part are German. The very immediate mirroring effect for us (Northern Europeans) is broken when we are faced with the diminutive corpses. This is not BODIES’ problem, of course (and we shall refrain from mentioning the problem of the origins of the bodies – a matter that the media delve into every time the exhibition is shown in a new location), but it is our problem as ethnocentric spectators. The sense of identification is not nearly as strong.
The exhibitors expect around 450,000 visitors in Copenhagen. And most likely they will show up in large numbers since this is the first exhibition of its kind in Scandinavia. One can only mourn the fact that it was BODIES and not Body Worlds that visited our part of the hemisphere. We deserve better!