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Controversial Exhibit Reveals What Lies Beneath

Britain: Some hail a unique display of corpses as good science and fine art. Critics call it ghoulish voyeurism.

September 01, 2002|JANET STOBART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONDON — Leave your body to science, or endow the arts? With professor Gunther von Hagens, you could do both.

Von Hagens has shocked and intrigued people throughout Europe with his Body Worlds exhibition, a controversial display of human corpses, preserved, stripped, dissected and explained in biological detail.

Body Worlds has been greeted variously as a unique art exhibit, a brilliant lesson in anatomy and a ghoulish invitation to voyeurism.

The fleshless corpses are positioned in poses--swimming, running, riding, cycling. Controversial exhibits include a reclining pregnant woman and several fetuses, some normal, some deformed.

"The human body has always been chastised," Von Hagens said. "For instance, Hollywood has influenced us by connecting anatomy with decay, dying, crime and horror. Here I want to get away from the cruelty, to give people an aesthetic shock."

The show has attracted more than 9 million visitors to its various venues over the last five years, including more than a quarter of a million in the first four months of its run at a converted East London brewery. Inspired by the show, a score of Britons have recently pledged their bodies for future exhibits. The professor and his team are making plans to move the exhibits to the United States this year.

It all began 25 years ago at Heidelberg University in Germany. Von Hagens, then an assistant anatomy professor, felt frustrated by studying anatomy with badly preserved specimens.

"I found a new way to preserve human tissue which actually makes it dry, odorless and retains color," the professor said of his specimens. He has patented his method, which he calls "plastination."

Plastination goes beyond the simple embalming process with formaldehyde. In a several-step process, bodily fluids are removed and ultimately replaced with a silicon-type substance, or polymer, which keeps the specimen pliable. Thus, the body becomes a life-size, multidimensional, visible, touchable specimen.

Controversy and debate have accompanied the exhibit since it opened here in April. A number of lawmakers tried to ban the exhibition, and protesters have attacked some of the specimens. One visitor, Martin Wyness, threw a cover over the reclining pregnant woman and poured paint around the body to keep people away.

Ruth Webster, a founder of a support group established in the wake of an organ-harvesting scandal at a Liverpool hospital, said she had been prepared to demonstrate against the exhibition. "But now I've seen it and seen how educational it is," she said. "Anybody who's interested in anatomy should see it. I even took my 10-year-old daughter."

But Peter McCaig, editor of the ecological publication Green Events, was outraged on hearing of Body Worlds. His editorial in July declared that he had no intention of seeing the show, which he considers "the ultimate objectification and brutalization of the human form. It seems but one step removed from cannibalism."

In early August, Von Hagens invited British donors to come forward, as they have in other countries where he has exhibited--Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Belgium--and offer their bodies as future "plastinates." More than 20 people answered the call, ages 17 to 70.

"I will die very happy knowing my body will generate an educational interest," said future donor Raymond Edwards, 51.

"I have no shortage of bodies," Von Hagens said one evening as people wandered around the exhibition. "But I thought it best to present the British donors to the public so that they believe it's not necessary for me to go and dig them up.

"Ninety percent of the specimens I work with are bodies of those who have consented to give them; the others are from collections already used for research."

Last year, Von Hagens was involved in a controversy over whether he was illegally sent body parts from a medical school in Siberia. He denied it, saying he had signed a contract with the university to plastinate and return bodies to the school for research.

Visitors to the exhibition--who pay $15 admission--show no signs of horror or disgust, instead spending minutes listening to audio explanations, or gazing at dissected organs, often prodding themselves as they follow a digestive tract or work out where their liver is.

Although the corpses are posed, Von Hagens stressed that he isn't motivated by any artistic impulse.

"I am a physician, an anatomist. But I am really by no means an artist, because I never tried to create anything with the aim of making it into a special form or shape," he said.

The idea is, and always was, he said, to show the human body "in its holistic aspects, total--I call it event anatomy. Therefore I close the gap between the dead and the living by putting the plastinated body into a position which is lifelike."

In early exhibitions, he left the bodies in the traditional upright, anatomical pose, but the public found the Frankenstein stances dehumanizing, doll-like and frightening, he said.

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