Friday, August 07, 2009

Dead bodies as art? No thanks.

I drove by the billboard and felt my stomach churn again. I can't make myself see this as a good thing. Looming in lurid color is a billboard for entertainment at a local casino -- an exhibit of over a dozen dead bodies with the skin partially removed, preserved in plastic, posed to display various organs. Some bodies still have their faces (or part of them) on. Some do not. They have all been put through a process called "plastination" that has immersed them in acetone and then polymers so that they will "resist decomposition".

Not everyone who donates their body for use after death suspects it will end up soaked in plastic and posed throwing a frisbee or kicking a soccer ball.

Gunter von Hagens, the man who developed this procedure is based in Germany.
BODY WORLDS is his company that develops multiple exhibits simultaneously around the world. His own site says the following about how bodies are obtained :

Body Donation for Plastination

All anatomical specimens on display in the BODY WORLDS exhibitions are authentic. They belonged to people who declared during their lifetime that their bodies should be made available after their deaths for the qualification of physicians and the instruction of laypersons. Many donors underscore that by donating their body, they want to be useful to others even after their death. Their selfless donations allow us to gain unique insights into human bodies, which have thus far been reserved for physicians at best. Therefore, we wish to thank the living and deceased body donors.

Note that the donors never said that they'd like their skin flayed off, their bodies dipped in plastic, posed playing cards and set up at an exhibit. Further, The Guardian reports that "In 2004, von Hagens agreed to return seven corpses to China saying he was unable to prove they had not come from executed prisoners. His action followed an investigation in the German magazine der Spiegel."

There is lots of competition for this piece of the entertainment/education/exhibit/sensastionalist pie. Most sites forbid te copying of pictures without a legal agreement, so click on the sites themselves to see the examples.:
Bodies the Exhibition - see videos of the actual exhibit by clicking here.

Then Amazing Human Body in Australia. Their site speaks about the grisly fact that an exhibit piece was recently stolen

Our Body, the Universe Within that says this about their bodies:

All of the anatomical specimens contained in Our Body: The Universe Within originate from China and have been provided for the exhibit consistent with the laws of China. The anatomical specimens are not owned by the exhibitors, but are provided by a Chinese foundation to promote educational and medical research of the human body. While we do not have the specific identity of each anatomical specimen, they have been donated through medical schools and other research facilities in China to promote education, science and medical research of the human body.

As early as 2006, The New York Times reported that over a dozen "body factories" existed in China to turn out preserved corpses.

Inside a series of unmarked buildings, hundreds of Chinese workers, some seated in assembly line formations, are cleaning, cutting, dissecting, preserving and re-engineering human corpses, preparing them for the international museum exhibition market.

“Pull the cover off; pull it off,” one Chinese manager says as a team of workers begin to lift a blanket from the head of a cadaver stored in a stainless steel container filled with formalin, a chemical preservative. “Let’s see the face; show the face...

Dr. Von Hagen has a factory in China, too -- where, according to the Times, "About 260 workers in Dalian process about 30 bodies a year." He is now branching off to include animals as well.

In a large workshop called the positioning room, about 50 medical school graduates work with the dead: picking fat off the cadavers, placing them in seated or standing positions and forcing the corpses to do lifelike things, such as hold a guitar or assume a ballet position. Dr. von Hagens admits these positions are controversial.

“Even my former manager said, ‘Can you really pose a dead man on a dead horse?’ ’’ Dr. von Hagens said. “But I decided this was real quality.”

A French court judge recently closed down an exhibit called Corps Ouvert, the latest in these exhibitors.

In March, Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, did not allow the exhibit into Venezuela.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s closure of the “Bodies Revealed” exhibition of dissected human cadavers and subsequent confiscation of the bodies is perhaps the strongest government reaction yet to the worldwide trend for the traveling art and science shows that have been seen by millions.

It is big business. Tickets in Vegas can run about $20. The price is higher in other venues. Hundreds of thousands of people see these exhibits. In Japan, where von Hagens first exhibited in 1995, he claims 3 million viewers.

But this all makes my skin crawl and my heart break. The depersonalization of human body to exhibit troubles me. I don't mind skeletons or cadavers in medical schools. They are needed there to teach. But I do mind this -- this show of enough skin and face and body to still resemble the real people that used to occupy those frames.

Imagine having a son that donated his body to science, and instead your child's body ends up as a traveling exhibit, the skin half sliced away from his body, his organs on view, posed as The Thinker, or posed riding a skateboard. His noble and generous donation simply becomes part of a company's profit scheme.

If someone wants their body processed and on view in such a way, fine. I do not have to like it, but at least there is some moral congruity in the process that I can understand. But to have a body simply "end up" there -- well, that is not OK. And, try as I might, no site that I saw indicated that it always sought express approval for this specific use.

I am not under any illusions that what is left after death is the old person that used to be alive. What is left is the echo of someone, an echo that is meant to dissolve away over time. Not an echo that is made to play forever with sounds given to it by strangers. Not this torturous freezing of mangled bodies after death.

My faith tells me that the person is long gone, and what is left is only the husk, the house in which one used to live. But "ashes to ashes - dust to dust" makes big sense to me. The body, this echo of life and love needs to return to the earth. Even the remains of medical cadavers are eventually incinerated, cremated. This denial of a respectful exit stuns me, leaves me heartsick. Rumors that some of these bodies were just unclaimed corpses makes me even more sad at what feels to me like misuse.

Is it educational? Most who approve of it would say yes. But do we need human bodies, bodies of real people, to educate? Is our technology so lacking that we cannot produce models that show what these once-alive people now show us?, a site in the Uk that opposes such exhibits, tells us that the exhibits were initially marketed as "art" until the public reacted negatively to that. Then they were re-marketed as "educational".

It must be possible to come up with accurate synthetic bodies -- look at what Hollywood does every day!

Further, what allows us to become so disassociated that we see these bodies as not having a "real" life in their past? The sites of the owning companies refer to them as "specimens". So many of them have parts of faces, staring through the polymer, eyes huge in shrunken skin. Just because they are soaked in plastic and hard as stone, we see them as statues. Are we desensitized by the violence that surrounds us every day? The gore in movies and video games? What makes us not see these bodies as what used to be real people?

It is the same lever we use to turn off the reality that our hamburger used to have big brown eyes, or that a fur coat used to be an animal that ran free and wild, or that our roast chicken probably never saw daylight and was raised in abject conditions, or that a war casualty of the "enemy" was someone's beloved child/brother/husband/wife.

It troubles me. In seeking to display "humans" it seems entirely inhumane to me. I want these bodies to find rest -- to not be gawked at, made the brunt of jokes, sold as chattel, not to exist as a new profit machine.

And you -- what do you think? Have you seen these exhibits? What did you think?


Blogger mar_dominguez1995 said...

This is really interesting! I am doing a project and this really helped me out. I am in the international baccalaureate, and for my theory of knowledge presentation I chose to write about the use of dead people in art Your resources are splendid! Thank you sooo much! I would use you as a knower but I cant( someone with ethos,or who is a very credible source. To be knower you have to be like a professor or some sort of political figure, sorry). However I will give credit to you. Again thank you.

9:50 PM  

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