July 26, 2007

Exhibition Review


A couple of weeks ago I was in Charlotte to see Bodyworlds at Discovery Place. Aside from the fact that the directions on the Discovery Place web site are WRONG, getting there was easy. It was the first time I'd driven I-85 to Charlotte and didn't sit parked on the highway for at least 10 minutes in a bottleneck.

As you may know, Bodyworlds is advertised as "The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies." Via a process dubbed "plastination" by it's more-than-a-little creepy German inventor, the "real human bodies" are kept in a state "between death and corruption" indefinitely.

A friend of mine chastised me for planning to see this show.

"It's all Chinese prisoners," he said. But at the show I learned he was wrong. It's all German citizens who willed their bodies to the permanently fedora-topped Dr. von Hagens for the purpose of making this anatomical exhibition.

The body donation form was posted on one wall of the exhibit, bearing such interesting checklist items as "I give permission for my plastinated body to be touched by lay people for educational purposes." I giggled.

But all of the "plastinations," as they call the exhibits, bore signs asking the public not to touch them. That was too bad because I wanted to see if they felt rubbery. I probably would have copped a feel if I hadn't already been upbraided by a security docent for having my cell phone ring in the hall of the dead.

But, enough of my juvenile impulses and cell phone discourtesy. What of the show?

It begins sedately enough with a skeleton standing upright behind it's suit of muscles. That is to say, the skeleton is displayed separate from the muscles that once clothed it. How they made the dead tissue of the muscles rigid enough to stand, seemingly unsupported by any structure is a mystery to me, but I suppose it's all part of the magic of "plastination."

The exhibit moves on from there to more and more bizarre, or beautiful (depending on your point of view), deconstructions of the organic human form that demonstrate increasing levels of artistic license. Dr. von Hagens is using dead human bodies as an artistic medium and the results are . . . astounding.

I came away from this show awed and amazed. I thought I knew quite a bit about anatomy, but soon I saw I know dick about innerds. Did you know your right lung has one more lobe than the left? Did you know your left lung is smaller than the right due to the location of the heart? No you did not!

Anyway, as with all anatomical exhibitions, dating from Fragonard, a measure of macabre humor comes standard. (Germans created this show, remember.) Some of the plastinations are given props such as cigarettes and hats that tend to jolt the viewer with grim laughter or an unwelcome sense of memento mori.

This exhibit triggers people. I overheard two good 'ol boys debating the ethics of abortion - something I don't imagine these two would ever have spoken of together outside this exhibit. And it made me appreciate my own body more than ever before. You see how many muscles have to cooperate just to handle a basketball or to support your bodyweight on your hands. You see organs diseased from years of unfortunate life-style choices. You see the miraculous sponge-like network of blood vessels that keeps life pumping through our fragile forms.

And the fragility of human life is one of the things that Dr. von Hagens hoped to communicate to the public when he conceptualized the exhibit. He says in an interview (part of which you can hear if you spring the extra $4 for the audio handset - which you should) that humans have created a mechanized world that is not forgiving of human frailty. We need to respect and be more nurturing and better conservators of the "natural world" of our bodies, he says.

There are three Bodyworlds exhibits traveling the U.S. right now. Besides Charlotte you can also see Bodyworlds in Portland and Montreal. Plan to see it - but leave the kids under 12 at home.

Posted by Chai-Rista at July 26, 2007 09:43 AM | TrackBack

Are you sure they weren't Chinese prisoners forced by the blade of a Dadao sword to become German citizens and will their bodies to the good doctor for plasitneternity?

Posted by: Moist Rub at July 26, 2007 10:40 AM

Naturally, I read this post during lunch, while eating a rather rare roast beef sandwich.

Thanks, Chai-rista.

Posted by: The Colossus at July 26, 2007 11:30 AM

I have a brother who works at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and based on family recommendations gave this a pass. Apparently it has a high Creepy factor. Kudos for braving it.

Posted by: Taleena at July 26, 2007 12:36 PM

Looks interesting. And *I* knew the human lungs have a total of 5 lobes. But that's about it.

Posted by: rbj at July 26, 2007 01:15 PM