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Dead Bodies and Archaeological Corpses: Aesthetics and Body Worlds

Danny Quirk's painted models in Times Square (image from Danny Quirk Artwork).

Danny Quirk’s painted models in Times Square (image from Danny Quirk Artwork).

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. Read the rest of this entry