Plastic post-mortality has been perfected

Having showed across the world for the past 15 years, the blockbuster Body Worlds exhibition has now berthed in Cape Town.

It runs until January 31 at the V&A Waterfront and comprises a selection of German scientist Dr Gunther von Hagens’s plastinated bodies.

From mummification to embalming, the human fascination with the preservation and anatomy of our bodies is hardly new. Nonetheless, one can’t help smirking at the appropriateness of the term “plastination” to describe the 21st-century quest for post-mortality. The process, which involves replacing the water and fat in a cadaver with special plastics that preserve it without smell or decay, was discovered by Von Hagens in 1977.

Since the first Body Worlds exhibition opened in 1997, some 35?million people in 70 cities worldwide have flocked to see it. For many others, however, the concept evokes revulsion and horror, because plastinated  “bodies” is a palatable euphemism for “corpses”. And let’s not forget the ethical and religious implications of traipsing these human remains around the world as a consumer spectacular; tickets for adults cost a whopping R140.

Von Hagens has always defended his motives as being purely educational and driven by a desire to share the wonders of anatomy with the world. Furthermore, despite ongoing accusations about the dubious origins of the bodies, Von Hagens insists that all come from voluntary donors and that the foetuses and organs are sourced from anatomical collections and morphological institutes.

In the exhibition’s South African manifestation, these educational motives come through in the curation of the sections: the cycle of life from conception to old age, the creativity and development of teenagers, how sight and vision change from birth to old age, extreme old age and HIV/Aids. The HIV/Aids section is a world premiere and comes across as quite patronising, because it appears to have been created specially for the  South African leg — there is no link between the information provided and the plastinated bodies.

Across the exhibition, all the information and text is pitched at about a grade seven level, although the bodies themselves are not shy about showing their genitals. For a doctor or medical student, the exhibition must be fascinating. However, there will surely be a large part of the population that will leave hankering after something more. Given the international status and ticket prices, one would have expected a multi-streamed exhibition catering for different ages.

Even though this is supposedly science, there is also a slipperiness between the objectivity and subjectivity displayed. For instance, all of the models have had their ears, eyebrows, noses and lips reconstructed in generic form, which is meant to make it easier for visitors to relate; however, the taxidermy glass eyes are all blue and the eyebrows all strawberry blonde.

The Aryan race aside, my feminist self was outraged that the anuses and labia were also given some reconstruction, but the clitoris not. The inherent deceit in what is real and what is reconstructed in the exhibition is not commented on and is akin to a Monet fake being displayed as the real thing.

These are minutiae compared with the outrageous poses the corpses are arranged in: saxophone player, ship captain, ballet dancer and full-on sex scene.

Obviously these poses are for entertainment value, but that was really the creepiest part because, along with the blue glass eyes, it comes across as human taxidermy. Anyone seen the grotesque 2006 Hungarian black comedyTaxidermia?

Mail&Guardian, 30 November 2012