Dead Bodies and Archaeological Corpses: Aesthetics and Body Worlds
Last week Times Square hosted a fashion show of sorts at which three models were decorated as anatomically correct, partially de-fleshed bodies. A day was spent body painting the models with exposed muscles, nerves, circulatory systems, and skeletal elements that rendered them walking anatomical textbooks. Artist Danny Quirk’s inspiration for the Times Square performance was the Body Worlds exhibit, a display of artistically preserved dead bodies. The models were walking advertisements for the exhibit at the Discovery Times Square Museum. Body Worlds complicates facile definitions of death and the corpse, clouds the distinction between entertainment and edification, and underscores the symbolic power of the dead body that has long been clear to archaeologists.
Body Worlds is a series of exhibitions of actual dead bodies preserved through a process called plastination, which replaces bodily water and fat with plastics. The plastinated bodies can be posed in a vast range of imaginative dissections revealing a variety of internal organs and structural features in prosaic activities (e.g., bodies playing poker) and impossible human positions (e.g., a runner with partially detached muscles). The plastination technique was developed in 1977 by Gunther von Hagens, who has managed the Body Worlds exhibitions since their first showing in Tokyo in 1995. The Body Worlds exhibit in New York, which is one of 11 Body Worlds exhibits now, includes a muscular gymnast, a flayed man holding his skin, a pregnant woman with a five-month old fetus, and a smoker with exposed blackened lungs among the preserved corpses greeting visitors.
Quirk’s breathing anatomical specimens and Body Worlds’ aestheticized corpses reinforce archaeologists’ understanding that few artifacts are more compelling than the human body. Yet Body Worlds brings death into the open without actually speaking its name. Instead, it invokes a narrow notion of education, a detached scientific rationality, and a candid curiosity about bodies and mortality. Body Worlds is partly a shallow public health and anatomical lesson and partly an artistic exhibit in which the elements of the works are plasticized flesh and organs.
The bodies in Body Worlds (and imitators such as Bodies the Exhibition) are not really corpses; rather, they are antiseptic sculptures that resist the inevitable odors, moisture, decay, and unsightliness of a corpse. The dead bodies are “real” in the sense that they were once people, a realization that is never far from the imagination of visitors and always featured in the exhibitions’ advertisements. However, the bodies are perhaps now artworks that testify to the aesthetic creativity of their post-death makers and the technical processes that allow the preservation of bodies in these spectacular forms.
The exhibits cast themselves as educational devices, but we might well serve the same purpose with anatomical models. Inevitably, the fascination of the exhibit always is linked to our comprehension that the bodies were once animated, but the exhibits awkwardly concede the fascinating and even entertaining act of viewing bodies cast in these distinctive plastic forms. Body Worlds and its imitators clinically document bodily structure and disease processes, with displays of obese people, smokers’ lungs, miscarriages, and a variety of pathologies. In real plastinated bodies these visuals are aesthetically arresting if not shocking; consequently, rather than function as building blocks for public health strategies, they are ambiguous and dystopian warnings about failures in body discipline.
Danny Quirk’s scantily clad dissection paintings are part of a lengthy heritage of artistic representations of anatomy (compare similar contemporary work by Michael Reedy). Quirk makes the same claim as Body Worlds when he suggests that his human canvasses are intended to be scientifically accurate, educational representations of an objective yet normally inaccessible physical reality. However, the dead bodies in Body Worlds and Quirk’s painted bodies seem to instead represent our imaginations of our corporeal interior; that is, they are not really faithful reproductions of our insides as much as they are imaginations of our bodies. Quirk’s painted bodies and the plastinated displays simply do this without the inevitable blood, odor, and sound that would accompany such a display in a living person.
Quirk’s models apparently had little to say during their performance—we know little about these women, but they obviously are alive. Body Worlds avoids any concrete discussion of the actual people who became plastinated. The stories of the actual people who are now displays may be the most fascinating dimension of Body Worlds, but it remains completely untold. All whole bodies in Body Worlds are donors, and most are from Germany; as of July, 2012, the program had over 13,300 donors worldwide (12,172 were then living donors and 1138 were deceased donors). In 2008 the competing Bodies The Exhibition show reached an agreement with the New York Attorney General to include a disclaimer after it could not confirm the source of some of its plastinated bodies from a poorly documented Chinese “black market.”
A 2005 study of the exhibit by the California Science Center reviewed death certificates and donor forms for Body Worlds specimens and determined that the donor process was ethically sound. A key dimension of this informed donor consent includes anonymity of the donor. Consequently, the specific motivations and histories of specific bodies—among the very things that make archaeological tales of human life and mortality most compelling–are lost in their plastinated display.
Much of the power of the archaeological corpse is that it does indeed actively disintegrate into constituent elements, arriving to us in the form of skeletal remains, chemical traces, and material trappings like clothing, grave goods, and coffin hardware. An archaeological corpse aesthetically displays the transformation from person to corpse, but unlike a fresh corpse an archaeological body is typically no longer mourned. That distance has sometimes allowed archaeologists to dehumanize bodies and reduce them through scientific analysis simply to yet another thing. It was that understanding of the dead (especially across lines of difference) that once sanctioned public displays of human bodies in spectacles that satisfied no real educational mission.
The most fascinating archaeological studies of the dead aspire to transform corpses into narratives, and they are perhaps most compelling when they speak peoples’ names or tell their stories in ways that permit us to acknowledge humanity, tragedy, and mortality. The archaeological imagination of corporeal remains ideally provides a language to articulate death, an imagination that is animated by both scientific rigor and creative thinking. Body Worlds is aesthetically rich, emotionally powerful, and perhaps even educational, but it ultimately risks saying very little about our humanity at all.
Anita L. Allen
2007 No Dignity in BODY WORLDS: A Silent Minority Speaks. The American Journal of Bioethics
7(4):24-27. (subscription access)
2007 Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds: Selling beautiful education. The American Journal of Bioethics 7(4):12-23. (subscription access)
James Thomas Hamilton Connor
2007 Exhibit Essay Review: “Faux Reality” Show? The Body Worlds Phenomenon and Its Reinvention of Anatomical Spectacle. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 81(4):848-862.
Julie Eklund and Aloisia de Trafford
2002 “BodyWorlds–The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies,” Atlantic Gallery, London, 23rd March 2002-9th February 2003. Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 13 (2): 110-116. (PDF Download)
2011 The Lives of Corpses: Narratives of the Image in American Memorial Photography. Mortality 16(4):343-364. (subscription access)
Jacque Lynn Foltyn
2008 Dead Famous and Dead Sexy: Popular Culture, Forensics, and the Rise of the Corpse. Mortality 13(2):153-173. (subscription access)
2006 Animated Corpses: Communicating with Post Mortals in an Anatomical Exhibition. Body & Society 12(4):25-52. (subscription access)
Thomas S. Hibbs
2007 Dead Body Porn: The Grotesqueries of the “Body World” Exhibit. The New Atlantis 15:128-131.
Susan L. Jagger, Michelle M. Dubek, and Erminia Pedretti
2012 “It’s a personal thing”: visitors’ responses to Body Worlds. Museum Management and Curatorship 27(4):357-374. (subscription access)
Dirk Von Lehm
2006 The body as interactive display: examining bodies in a public exhibition. Sociology of Health & Illness 28(2):223-251. (subscription access)
Hsuan L. Hsu and Martha Lincoln
2007 Biopower, Bodies… the Exhibition, and the Spectacle of Public Health. Discourse 29(1):15-34. (PDF Download)
Charleen M. Moore and C. Mackenzie Brown
2007 Experiencing Body Worlds: Voyeurism, Education, or Enlightenment? Journal of Medical Humanities 28(4): 231-254.
2006 Advise and Consent: On the Americanization of Body Worlds. BioSocieties 1(4): 369-384. (subscription access)
2011 Body Worlds’ Plastinates, the Human-Nonhuman Interface, and Feminism. Feminist Theory 12(2):165-181. (subscription access)
Philip R. Stone
2011 Dark tourism and the cadaveric carnival: mediating life and death narratives at Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds. Current Issues in Tourism 14 (7):685-701. (subscription access)
2004 Plastination for Display: A New Way to Dispose of the Dead. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 10:603-627. (subscription access)