The Grotesqueries of the "Body World" Exhibit
Clearly I saw, and the sight still comes back,
a trunk without a head come walking on
just like the others of that sullen pack,
That held the chopped-off head by the long hanks,
hanging like a lantern from his hand.
The famous medieval Italian poet Dante creates a macabre vision of twisted bodies, divided and rent asunder, as a manifestation in the flesh of the deforming consequences of sin. In Body Worlds, a new exhibit touring the nation and now on display at the Dallas Museum of Natural Science, the German scientist Gunther von Hagens has discovered a new means of providing anatomy lessons to the masses -- cuts, slices, and dissections of "real" human bodies, preserved through a process called "plastination." The impression left on viewers of Body World's theatrical displaying of vivisected dead bodies will likely be as memorable as Dante's imaginative journey among the dead. The question is whether it has substantive educational value, or is merely feeding our inordinate taste for the macabre while masquerading as science education.
The exhibit includes an array of complete corpses, hundreds of organs and partial specimens, and a series of preserved embryos, kept intact through the plastination process von Hagens invented -- a plasticization that replaces water and fats with liquid silicone rubber. The process not only allows for preservation, but it also enables bodies to be kept intact and upright and thus serves the end of displaying a wide variety of cuts, slices, angles of perception, and artful juxtapositions of parts of bodies. There are bodies slit into two or three parts, bodies with one eye and half a skull, bodies with inner organs removed, kept intact and now dangling next to the frame of the original body. The process lends itself to theatricality. The body of a goalie, in a diving position, stretching out with one hand to block a soccer ball, is split right down the middle and separated by a gap, while his other hand reaches backward to grasp his internal organs, which have been neatly removed from his torso.
Whereas Dante bluntly describes an individual with "his bowels and guts dangling between the legs," Gunther von Hagens gives us the "Jumping Dancer." His body is presented so as to stress the flexing of his muscles, but we get so much more than that little anatomy lesson. Von Hagens has lifted the "back of the trunk" and let it dangle behind the body, so that the back "opens downward" and the brain nearly straddles the floor.
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