Twenty million corpse fans can't be wrong
'Body Worlds 2' tugs at the heart strings
From the Aug. 5, 2006, Boston Phoenix

As the story goes, in 1977, German scientist Dr. Gunther von Hagens invented a new way of preserving corpses for anatomical study that entailed replacing the body's water tissue with fluid plastics. Goodbye jars full of formaldehyde. He dubbed it "plastination" and sold preserved specimens to universities for study. After some years, he realized that average folks found plastinated corpses freaky cool too, so he developed exhibitions of preserved organs and ultimately entire bodies in wacky poses. Ever wondered what a skinned corpse would look like ski jumping? Me neither, but von Hagens kindly provides the answer.

These "Body Worlds" shows proved to be hits. Three versions now touring the globe have, at last count, attracted some 20 million visitors. "Body Worlds 2" opened at the Boston Museum of Science on Sunday, and as has been the practice elsewhere, the institution is offering extra evening viewing hours to accommodate anticipated crowds. I anticipate crowds too. Who can resist a good old-time freak show given the respectable imprimatur of science and edumacation? The only thing that could make it more exciting is if the old Watch and Ward Society could ban it.

There is much to learn from here: the red filaments of the arteries of the head and brain, a liver spotted with moldy-looking tumors, a breast invaded by cancer, a steel prosthesis replacing an arthritic knee, nerves dangling like cobwebs on a skeleton, a fatally torn heart ventricle. Von Hagens heightens color contrasts so that parts can be more easily distinguished, but if you're like me, you may still have some difficulty telling what is what.

Some specimens aim to scare you off unhealthy behavior. A healthy white lung sits next to a lung turned to charcoal by smoking. It will give you the willies. A fatty slab from a 300-pound man, the label warns, "shockingly reveals the burden the inner organs endured during this person's shortened life." His heart gave out in his 50s. The bodies are astonishing in their natural complexity, and the preservation is amazing. I showed photos to a medical researcher I know, and he marveled at the refinement of the "plastinates."

Most striking are the whole bodies, many posed as if they were in the midst of skateboarding, doing yoga, doing ballet, kicking a soccer ball. The corpse of a pregnant woman, her belly sliced open to reveal her five-month-old fetus, is heartbreaking. The mother is awkwardly posed, but it doesn't lessen the pang of loss. And her eyes look so stunned and sad. You want to know what went wrong, but the wall text just identifies the intestines, lung, fetus, uterus.

Von Hagens pays careful attention to facial expressions, leaving on eyebrows for greater effect. His skills only occasionally produce more than the odd dull effect, but they do increase your, well, empathy for the corpses. "Only when you see it as a partner," he told me at the press preview last Friday, "are you able to identify with the specimen, to build up body pride."

Some poses shock because the body has been torn limb from limb. A woman posed as if she were diving into a pool is split so that her head and chest lean forward, her back and brain lean backward, and her organs are piled upright in between. A standing man's insides are pulled out like drawers, and his hand holds open a door of flesh revealing his stomach. The effect is most stunning in his face, which is slid out like four staggered puzzle blocks. We can appreciate corpses skinned and disassembled for anatomical study even though we may be more comfortable with those made up to resemble what the deceased looked like in life. But audacious dissections like these defy any effort to be cool and scientific, to ignore your gut reaction that it's a desecration to splay open someone's innards.

The longer I stayed, the more everything started to look like bacon or beef jerky, but with eyes. I found myself kind of half averting my gaze. And that's when I reached two corpses in the last room that I can't stop thinking about: The Ballet Dancer, whose belly and buttocks are curled out to create a meat tutu, and The Angel, whose back is sliced and curled up to resemble wings. I thought The Angel was standing on her toes, but then I realized that the soles of her feet are peeled back to become high heels. It's one of the most bizarre takes on women's fashion that I've ever seen.
And utterly tasteless.

The good doctor had lots to say about the show at the press preview: "Here we face our mortality, and 'Body Worlds' gives us the power to reflect because we are in an environment where we cross the boundary of death. We fear death because we don't know what's coming....Only when we overcome our fear of death, when we embrace death, do we understand life."

He explained that he and his staff have enlisted 6,800 body donors since he began seeking volunteers in Germany in 1979, including 142 from North America over the past two years. "The most respect you can give to other people is after death if you are willing to follow their wishes. I'm coming from East Germany, and there was no democracy, there was no democracy of free speech, there was no democracy of free decision, there was no democracy of even moving out of the country. So it is rooted in my biography that I want to bring a little more democratization to society, democratization beyond death." Hooray for democracy!

I inquired about the flesh skirt and the high heels, what to me were failed attempts at humor. "I believe that humor is a way to conquer our mortality," he acknowledged. "And I think I owe it to the [humorous] spirit of the body donors." His idea is that entertainment keeps people looking long enough to be educated. But if the balance between entertaining and informing falters, that's when it becomes a freak show. His response: "The plastinates are shown in everyday activities. So it's not necessarily freaky."

An acquaintance I bumped into at the preview was trying to think of a way "Body Worlds 2" could be more tasteful. She wondered whether plastic models wouldn't suffice. Perhaps for scientific study, but the reason von Hagens's specimens are so moving and sometimes disturbing is that they're real bodies. A fake corpse playing soccer is just tacky; a real corpse playing soccer is tacky and charged with something more.

Von Hagens argues that he's part of a long and noble scientific tradition. Scientific progress, like artistic progress, often requires upsetting propriety; today's quacks are tomorrow's Galileos. But I'm not sure von Hagens is a Galileo, despite the museum's trumpeting him as "the leading anatomist of our time." He's more like a remarkable tinkerer turned outsider artist, with a multi-million-dollar budget. That's why he includes a metal plaque inscribed with his signature before each full-body display. It feels one step removed from a surgeon tattooing his name across a patient to claim credit for his handiwork. But what questions "Body Worlds 2" raises! Why does it upset us if someone shows no respect for the dead? Do the dead care? When we die, are our bodies more than meat? Why does our meat make us so mortified? Ultimately these questions are all part of the oldest question: what happens to us after we're gone?