‘Emotion always has its roots in the unconscious and manifests itself in the body‘ ~ Irene Claremont de Castillejo.
Last weekend I found out what I was made of, what I was really made of.
Surrounded by lifeless stone-cold strangers, but not a stench of formaldehyde in the air. No, I’m not trapped in an obscene chamber of horrors or a mortuary but the opening weekend of the Body Worlds exhibition at the TELUS World of Science. An exhibition showcasing preserved human bodies using a technique called plastination which preserves the specimens right down to the microscopic level. With 30 million visitors worldwide and cloaked in controversy I was prepared for the queues of curious museum-goers.
This isn’t bodies laid on slabs like you’d expect in a dissection lab. This is Anatomy 101 3D, all those well annotated diagrams bought to life (death?) before your eyes. Each specimen is painstakingly posed – from yoga flexes to ice skating death spins – to give a feeling of dynamism and to tug at tendons and tense muscles to show the anatomical action beneath the skin’s surface.
People shuffled round the exhibits with a sort of hushed inquisitiveness. I was trying to take in the fact these were actual people.
The exhibition had a da Vinci-esque feel to it. Ideology and religion had made anatomical dissection illegal in the past and was limited to animals with the findings extrapolated to humans, da Vinci carried out private dissections in his own ‘search for the truth’, even finding the cause of heart disease but having to hide his discovery. He was forced to give up his studies and is quoted as saying ‘Tell me, have I done anything of worth?’ If only he knew his impact. It felt like entering his Renaissance world and learning through observing the tiny details and not staring at words on a page. Trying to fathom the unfathomable.
Considering I want to be an embryologist, I was pretty excited about the ‘reproduction and development’ area. But I was saddened that every one of these tiny specimens never made it to life for some reason or another. There was also a plastinate frozen in suspended animation at 4 months pregnancy, a visible fetus cradled in her belly. I could definitely see the reason for this part of the exhibit to be curtained off from the rest, that woman made me feel uncomfortable and I’m an open minded self-confessed science nerd. It made me even more determined to help people through science, working at an early start of the process to set in motion a baby’s healthy development.
Questions steeped in ethics are inevitable with a presentation like this and it got me thinking midway through my White Chocolate Mocha yesterday. Philosophical debate ensued and our main thoughts were this. Is it a vile display showing a lack of respect for human dignity? Human bodies for entertainment, sorry, edutainment? Maybe inspiring the next generation of doctors or leading people to take better care of themselves. Does it devalue human individuality? Each exhibit is devoid of a personal narrative, I guess the aim is to detach ourselves from the cadaver as a person but I still couldn’t help but wonder why they chose this way to be remembered. Is this morbid art? Depending on your definition of art of course. There’s no doubt each piece requires training and skill to plastinate and pose, taking at least 1500 working hours for each specimen.
Marrying of science and art? Perhaps. It was definitely on that narrow line, these surreal anatomical sculptures. Either way it showed that the human body is a wonder of the world. Highlighting the complexity of the body, how even though we think of our body as being a whole it is really many systems working harmoniously, intricately linked, carrying us day to day. Delicate nerves and seeing the scarlet plastinate capillary systems I got a sense of our fragility and an appreciation for my body. Wow, you’re pretty remarkable.
Bonus information: ‘Well, if you can’t take the cadavers, get out of the dissection room’.
Embarrassing. I almost fainted next to a dissected camel. Take a hot crowded museum, fluorescent lighting, a case of dehydration and what do you get? A girl who ends up needing to lie down in the ‘baby changing facilities’ area. I kid you not. Tended by knight in shining armor boyfriend baring apple juice. Probably now the laughing-stock of Calgary Med students assuming I have a sensitive disposition. What a date!