Macabre masterpieces?

‘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.

The beautiful works of Leonardo da Vinci - a true master of the arts and science.

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.

There’s a great article on Body Worlds here. If Ethics is your thing, then recommend this.

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!



Filed under Arts & Culture, Calgary, Life, Science

8 responses to “Macabre masterpieces?

  1. This post is really interesting. I went to go see Body Worlds a couple of months ago and I thought it was amazing. I think in order to really enjoy it, though, I really did have to put all of those ethical questions at the back of my mind. But now that I’m thinking about them, it’s hard to make sense of it.

    I guess this is how I feel right now: is it a vile display showing lack of respect for human dignity? Probably to some people — *definitely* for some people — but the way it impacted me was huge. I was reminded that despite the fact that we divide ourselves so harshly among party lines, among lines of sexual orientation and race and class, we’re all literally the same underneath it all. If that’s highlighting the whole and undermining the individual, then I guess I’m OK with that?

    Man. Good post!

    • Thanks for the encouraging words, its hard to know how posts like this will be received! So much appreciated! 😀

      I’d love to see the Animal Anatomy one at the Neukirchen zoo in Germany too, they have an elephant there which took about 64,000 hours to plastinate and pose. Got to love Animal Autopsy on NGeography 😀 I’m happy someone else enjoyed it, I was describing it to my mum and I could tell she was doing her ‘lovely dear but, WTF’ face through the phoneline.

      I love your insight and big nod in agreement there. The fact I walked away thinking and questioning what I had seen and not just ‘well that was great’ made me realise the value of the exhibition even more. I hope it will have a lasting impact on everyone who visits and I’m sure Gunther van Hagen has got a bunch more plastination ideas up his sleeve. There was a rumor he had done a part human-part animal, think it was a centaur, but not sure if that’s true.

      Still not sure if I could go through with donating my body, I can’t decide how I feel on that. I downloaded the body donation booklet just to research.

  2. Julie

    When I was living LA they had this exhibit but I was so busy to get around to going :-(. When i graduated and moved to SD, they had it but the week I moved was their last week. I hope it comes back again!

    Speaking of dissection, the physiological science majors in UCLA had to take a class where they had to dissect a human–craziness! Unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity to do that–if only I minored in physci. It’s more interesting than dissecting brains really.

    • I think there’s quite a few BW exhibitions circling the globe at the moment, keep your eyes peeled! I only found out about the Calgary one through chance when I got a curiosity boost and checked the official site. Got excited and prebooked 1 month in advance.

      Wish I had taken a photo of the sign on the dissection room near my lecture theaters. ‘THIS ROOM IS NOT A THOROUGHFARE’, just the shortcut everyone wants to take huh 😛

      There was so many things I would have enjoyed minoring in. I ended up having all my credits being related to biological sciences. My Biology degree was made up of animal/plant science and biomedical. If you could go back and change your major/minor what would be your perfect combination? 🙂

  3. ikkenorskgirl

    I’d love to write something uber smart and pensive like you have done, but my scientific knowledge is, well…rather limited. Nonetheless, I still am going to write what came up in my mind:

    “Aww poor you! Don’t worry, you’re still hardcore in my eyes!”

    PS I’m back up finally 😉

    • It wasn’t all the science geeks, there were quite a few kids making insightful comments – ‘Mum I think that man has 2 penises’ and ‘Mum why does that lady have a mohawk?’. Ah, to be that tender age again.

      *Hulk growl* HARD TO THE CORE! I try!!

      Glad the Norwengly is back 😀

  4. anonymousperfectionist

    So I totally went to an exhibit like this in Toronto once at the science center and was hazy about the same ethical lines as you.

    The whole “creating that sense of detachment” thing in medicine really used to bother me. I used to volunteer at the hospital in high school and got to be in the operating room for a couple surgeries and I remember the surgeons making a lot of fun of the patients like calling them fat or making comments about their personal lives. And I asked one of them after once and he told me it was so they could stay detached from them. Regardless, its a weird line :p

    Its really cool that you want to be embryologist! I’ve always been fascinated with research in that field even though I want to be an engineer lol. Good luck!

    PS – everyone is allowed freaking out over dissections lol. I definitely had that moment when my two guy lab partners decided to wave a frogs male parts around the room as well as his brains on a toothpick :p.

    • Hopefully the Body Worlds: Cycle of Life exhibition will travel close, think it’s in Singapore right now.

      I’d love to know how surgeons feel after their first few surgeries. Thank goodness for anesthetics or sounds like there could be a law suit there 😛

      Thankies for the luck, hopefully I’ll get a placement at the IVF clinic here in the next few months. Will definitely write about the experience. There is so much interesting research in reproductive medicine and so many unanswered questions that I can’t see discoveries slowing down any time soon.

      Engineering is a super field to get involved in. My boyfriend works in chemical and process engineering, he was happy that the field didn’t get hit too badly by the recession. But I do know his job makes his brain ache, you smart engineers!

      The weirdest dissection I have done was a cat’s uterus 😦 Poor kitty. And poor froggy brains!

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