Skinless bodies roam the world

Posted on March 17, 2009
Filed Under Commentary, Travel | Leave a Comment

Gunther von Hagens is responsible for one of the most on the edge, if not over the top, art exhibitions ever. He is a doctor from East Germany, trained in West Germany. He discovered a way to preserve human body parts by replacing the liquid in them with clear plastic.

He convinced hundreds of people to donate their remains to him. Those bodies, or pieces of them, now tour the world as art and education. Currently one of these exhibitions, Body Worlds, is at the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, Florida.

The artistic element of the show is a series of bodies, without their skins, posed in various athletic acts, with and without members of the opposite sex. Some of the bodies are split open to show the internal parts. One holds all of his internal organs in a hand raised over his head.

In addition to the complete bodies, there are split bones, sliced organs including brains, and separated arterial systems. There is not a part of the body you cannot see close up. Even the three tiny bones of the ear have their own display.

Some of the displays show what killed the donor. Emphysema, cancer, heart attacks, strokes, and chronic obesity are all clearly revealed.

So are many medical repairs. There are artificial knees, artery stents, artificial heart valves and hearts.

It is not for the squeamish or prudish. All of the genitalia and reproductive systems are there. There are fetuses at all stages of development. Some that died near their birth time look sick and miserable.

There are posters everywhere with a lot of poetic, philosophical and theocratic musing on life, love, romance, and spirituality.


Not being squeamish, I found the exhibition fascinating. Some of it is fairly basic mechanics although of interesting design. Bones, joints, muscles and tendons are interesting but quite comprehensible. Artery, vein and nerve systems are every bit as astonishingly complex as we think they are.

Michelle was surprised our kidneys are as small as they are. I was surprised they are as big.

Genitalia look bigger and smaller without the covering of skin and body.

Von Hagens comes off as a bit of an egotist. He always wears a black hat including indoors and in group photos. In the one-sheet exhibition brochure, he devotes several paragraphs to: 1) Commenting about how trivial it is that some people focus so much attention on why he wears a black hat and 2) Going on at some length about why he wears a black hat.

He says it is a symbol of his belief that the strength of democracy depends on the promotion of individualism.

Michelle points out that it also immediately directs your attention to him in any group photo.

Thought provoking

As art and education are supposed to do, Body Worlds provokes thought, discussion and difference of opinion.

Michelle thinks some of the exhibition is a bit sensational and disrepectful of the donors.

I think every middle school child should see it. For one thing, it just might inspire them to take better care of their bodies while they can.

Tangential connections

As usual, my thoughts about Body Worlds are tangentially connected to other images and experiences. As a person who believes in miracles but not religion, I was struck most by the contrast between a body that is alive and one that is not. The spark of life is just so incomprehensibly miraculous.

I don’t know why but I have never felt any real connection between a dead body and the person it was. I feel about the same about what happens to my body when I am not in it anymore as I do about some of the cars I have owned.

On the other hand, I live every day in amazement and excitement at all the world and life has to offer.

Appropos of that, Body Worlds admission included tickets to a selection of Imax films at the museum. We went to the one about life in the coral triangle from Indonesia to the Great Barrier Reef.

Hello for miracles of life!! There is a creature called the Leafy Sea Dragon that looks like something out of a fantasy comic book. Life we cannot imagine is all around us. We usually do not think of coral as alive but the contrast with a dead coral reef is dramatic.
On another related tangent, outside the main museum, there is a little building that houses butterflies. There were Monarchs. Monarchs, to me, are one of the greatest symbols and examples of the relay of life. It takes four generations of Monarchs to fly from their northern reaches to Mexico. One generation makes it back. The various elements of the cycle, including the milkweed that is poisonous to anything but Monarchs and the fact that Monarchs taste terrible make up a miraculous and fascinating tale. They fly, in their millions, across the Great Lakes!
The cycle of life and death is far too big even for my imagination much less my comprehension.

Death and drummers
Life often provides me with serendipitous contrasts that make the images on my soul especially vivid.
After Body Worlds, it was especially appropriate that we went to the undersea Imax film and then to the Japanese Kodo drummers concert in nearby Clearwater.
In addition to being extremely talented and musical and executing a beautifully orchestrated performance, these young people are superbly fit. Significant segments of the program are performed with young men sitting with their feet hooked under large drums, leaning back in a half sit-up position and whaling away at blur speed. Just sitting in that position for five or six minutes is more than most athletes could do. The penultimate number involves two young men, wearing only snug breech cloths, more like cotton rope thongs, so you can see every muscle in their bodies but one. It shows that they use their entire bodies from their heels and toes to the tops their heads to draw everything they can out of the drums. Of the 14 performers, four were women. They drum as fast but not as hard and their feminine grace is clearly obvious in drumming actions where you would not expect to see it.

There is some chanting that verges on throat singing. I couldn’t help thinking how music crosses all cultural and tribal lines. There was a TV show about a gathering in Yellowknife a couple of years ago. They brought together traditional artists from tribes all around the Arctic rim — Inuit and Mongolians to name a couple.  They visited for a week or so and jammed. At the end, they had worked out a concert. They did it all without understanding each other’s languages at all. The Kodo drummers and those Arctic artists could have communicated too. There is a dignity in music that communicates soul to soul around the world.
The Kodo drummers also proved the aptness of Cadogan’s law about there being only two things going on in the universe. One is sex. The other is foreplay.
Superbly fit and healthy young men and women beating the bejayzus out of BIG drums and teeny drums and cymbals is definitely foreplay.
Apropos of that, I think I have a more pragmatic view of life than some folks. I understand how our behaviour is driven by biology — the genes drive to survive by reproducing and mutating, and simple mathematics. However, I also understand that our genes’ interests and our personal interests often are different. The genes in males and females would like a variety of partners and do not give a damn about his happiness or hers.

To complete a day of examples of the miracle of life, we arrived back in Gulfport just in time to see the launch of the NASA Kepler mission. Humans won’t see it again for awhile. It is off to search the universe for other planets that can, like Earth, support life as we know it.

It’s only rock ‘n’ roll but I like it!                         DAC


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