I carry a picture of a dead woman’s head in my memory. My encounter with her took place in King’s College’s Gordon Museum in London on a sunny afternoon last spring. I don’t exaggerate if I say she had an enormous impact on me. She has forever burned an impression of herself onto my retina.
This dead woman (she was red-haired) stares at me from her jar with formaldehyde filled to the brim. To me, she differs from all other specimens with whom she nevertheless shares the fate of being preserved, and being part of a huge collection made for educational purposes. Oddly enough she keeps staring at me, even though, because of some malformation, one of her eyes is missing and the other is closed. It looks like she is staring through her one and only eyelid and this is, for me, the most frightening aspect about her.
It is hard to say if her intense staring appearance is due to the condition of the skin of the eyelid, which has turned almost transparent and thereby, because of the skin’s semi-transparency, unveils a shadow of an eyeball underneath, or, and this is the second possibility, if her insisting attitude derives from her overall realistic look with wrinkles, toothless gums hidden behind her hollowed lips, and some beard-like hair that sticks out here and there from her chins, cheeks and forehead.
She is so damn real. What makes her presence obscure is probably that her lifelessness is so alive. By being so lively present, she seems to unveil her mortality. She touches me extraordinarily.
In the following, my story shall take a sharp turn, in contrast with the experience described above. My recent visit to Günther von Hagens’s exhibition Bodyworlds at Experimentarium, a science center in Copenhagen, is going to be my point of departure in describing how my experiences unfolded as I encountered the plastinated bodies in the exhibition.
Just to keep the record straight, my intention is not a critique of Experimentarium. I acknowledge their activities as a science center and a legitimate amusement park for, especially younger, visitors. My interest is rather in the seductive presence effects produced by anatomical specimens. Here von Hagens’s bodies deserve some critical examination.
Frankly, I didn’t really meet the bodies, which I had otherwise expected to do. With a few exceptions (the displayed cross sections of the body were pretty fascinating), I didn’t really ‘see’ or ‘feel’ them. Honestly, it felt as if they were not present at all; especially not the full body plastinates. Why?
In retrospect, keeping the earlier public debate about the authenticity of Günther von Hagens’s plastinated bodies in mind, I wonder if I could have predicted this outcome. I knew about the alleged originality and ’realness’ of the bodies on display and I knew about the plastination tecniques which leaves only some fifteen percent of the original body behind. So in principle I knew I wasn’t going to ‘see’ real human bodies. Nevertheless, I couldn’t avoid being disappointed.
Even when standing in front of a plastinated heavily pregnant woman with a nearly full grown fetus in her womb I was not particularly affected. I really made a persistent attempt to stir some emotions by repeatingly telling myself that “these are in fact REAL people”. But it didn’t seem to make any difference. I still didn’t sense the claimed realness of the real people. They all looked like plastic figures cast in all sorts of absurd postures equipped with bouffant eyebrows looking like those you can by for a Halloween party. As a result it was extremely difficult to relate to the bodies. Their artificiality actually created a perceptible distance between them and me.
And yet so alive…
Eventually, it wasn’t until I gave up my effort to get near the bodies that something happened. Suddenly I got fascinated, but my fascination was of a different kind than the one I had when I was confronted with a real body – i.e., the head of the woman mentioned above.
What altered my experience was my adjustment and change of attitude. Instead of expecting life and death on display, I began to comprehend the body statues as what they are. It is not that the bodies are not fascinating. They are, not as dead bodies though, but as a collection of écorchés (skinned musclemen statues). So, by accepting the distance between the showpieces and me (and maybe even allowing it to get bigger as I saw no point in expecting any lively humanness in them), I managed to experience them as they appeared in their artificiality. In that way they actually became enjoyable – although they did not move or touch me emotionally, they were enjoyable as painted écorchés.
In a previous post I’ve described some art works by the American artist Paul Thek which, by virtue of their playful handling of my sensous impressions, affected and fascinated me. Thek’s artificial versions of meat pieces are seductive, not in spite of, but because of their artificiality. If somebody had claimed they were derived from ‘real’ bodies, I’m quite convinced they would have immediately lost their charm; they would have been ripped of their ability to play tricks with my sensous experiences, twisting and turning my sense of what was real or not. I’m glad no one tried to claim their origin in once living bodies: if so I would have missed the excitement and I wouldn’t have felt the curiosity that grew inside of me.