The Times, October 2008, Review
Forget all your preconceptions about the gruesome work of Gunther von Hagens, aka Dr Death. The controversial anatomist, best known for reviving the public autopsy, opens a new show at the O2 in London today and it’s a cracker.
Bodyworlds charts the human life cycle from conception to old age. So far so ordinary. But the explosive element von Hagens adds – as most people with a pulse will already know – is real-life humans. Or rather, real dead cadavers.
When Von Hagens was a research assistant at Heidelberg University back in the 1970s, he refined a technique for preserving dead bodies. Plastination involves removing the fat, water, blood and tissue from the body and reinjecting it with a plastic.
As he refined the technique, he realised he could use it to mould the bodies into dynamic positions, and in the 30 years since has been creating a collection of artfully poised preserved cadavers which he puts on public display. This latest show includes a figure seated at a table, apparently absorbed in a game of chess, a couple engaged in a rugby tackle and another pair in a gravity-defying balletic pose.
Unsurprisingly, his work has attracted both admiration and condemnation, earning him the unflattering Dr Death moniker and worse, the nickname “Josef Mengele” in his native Germany.
It might sound horribly gruesome, but don’t let that put you off making the trip to the O2. No-one is more squeamish than your correspondent, but contrary to expectations, Bodyworlds isn’t gory. In fact, what strikes you most is how surprisingly beautiful the show is.
As von Hagens says, anatomy as a subject for exhibition has traditionally been neglected, not because the subject matter isn’t compelling, but because the possible content – old bones, degenerated body parts – has generally been ugly and unappealing. He prides himself on putting the art into anatomy.
True, some may find the preserved foetuses a challenge, and the dangling torso with its intestines on display might induce a mild nausea. But in the main, the unique view von Hagen’s corpses offer into the reality of our human make-up, means that squirmishness soon gives way to fascinating.
Even more beautiful than the corpses, are the cross-sectional slices. Inspired by 3D MRI scans, von Hagens has cut wafer thin slices through hands, lungs, brains. The plastic gives them a translucent quality, which when they’re easily distinguishable, like the bones of a hand, look like colourful x-rays. When they’re more abstract they bring to mind amber fossils. They also tell some powerful stories. Smokers should pay particular attention to the cross sections of two lungs, one healthy, the other damaged by nicotine. While the brain flabby with Alzheimers is a graphic depiction of the relationship between the functioning of our minds and our physical bodies.
Von Hagens has also used his technique to expose the complexity and fragility of our arterial systems. He’s injected the veins in a head, an arm and a heart with red-dyed plastic to fix them, then removed all surrounding tissue, to reveal the delicate pattern of blood veins and vessels.
This show, and this may find disapproval with some, is also pretty funny – though not in a laugh out loud, Carry on Cadaver kind of way.
A flayed man holds out his skin, intact in a single sheet, as if he is about to hang it out to dry. A man is mounted on a horse, which is also plastinated, both beings holding out their brains for us to compare.
Less amusing is a reclining figure of a woman, the pose and title recalling a classical painting. Her swollen stomach has been opened up to reveal a fully formed baby.
Of all the bodies in the show, hers rams home that these were once living human beings. Who was this woman in this double tragedy, you are compelled to ask. There are no clues here.
This lack of information about the identity of each corpse does encourage you to view them as merely anatomical waxworks. It’s one of the criticisms directed at von Hagens. It could be that the stories that have emerged over the years that his subjects originate from unethical sources, like Kyrgystan and Chinese prisons, are behind this reticence. But his own explanation is not unreasonable. If he were to release details of individuals and how they met their fate, these stories would dominate the show, rather than the larger tale he wants to tell, about the marvel of the human body and all its mysteries.
What it means for those in the exhibition or for their families, is another matter. Is it disrespectful to display bodies this way or is it a celebration of life? Is he exploiting them or giving them a glimpse of eternity? Are we allowed to laugh at death?
Von Hagens himself is a humorous character. He has an otherworldly quality, a rigid physicality and a fixed stare. Like dog owners who resemble their pets, you wonder if he hasn’t spent too much time with his cadavers. It’s a pity he doesn’t believe in reanimation, a la Frankenstein. If he did, and he’d be the right one to do it, he should bring back Peter Sellers to star in a biopic of his life. When he speaks it’s hard not to recall the maniacal Dr Strangelove.
Perhaps his obsession with death was caused by a near-death experience in childhood. As the blood transfusions following an accident appeared not to be working, the doctors stood over him, announcing to his father that his time was up. Von Hagens says it taught him a positive lesson that death is normal. Assuming it’s even true – one suspects he likes to perpetrate myth – a psychologist might wonder if the result wasn’t slightly more pathological.
Von Hagens believes, he says, that by the year 2500 we will all be living until we are 300, and supports controversial experiments to achieve that. But at 63, his own time is running out.
When fate does catch up with him, his corpse will join the rest of his Bodyworld cadaver collection – although he’s leaving up to his colleague Angelina Whalley to decide exactly what pose he will strike, no doubt still sporting his signature black trilby.
We may even get to see the contents of his heart – he says it will be removed and dissected for the show. Will it reveal a commercially driven cynic or an idealistic educator? At the end of the day, who cares – Bodyworlds is terrific.