Wednesday, December 8, 2010

I See Dead People

I finally made it to see the controversial Body World exhibit, now showing at the Tech Museum in San Jose. I remember the first time I saw an image of Body World, and how blown away I was by creator Gunter Von Hagen's vision of...of...of....what? Von Hagen, a pathologist, created methods by which formerly living organisms can be "plastinated". His organisms of choice are expired specimens of Homo Erectus, but he also works with lesser Kingdoms as well, often combining the two, such as a horse with rider---that one was three years in the making.

After all, this is a bicycling blog so consider this image
(click photos for enhanced anatomical details)

Upon entering the exhibit, you are directed amongst angular black paneled partitions featuring modern art ceramic body shapes, then you notice the ambient space music in the background, but mostly you notice that the nervous excitement of the patrons lining up to get in has been replaced with a reverent silence, or if not silence, then hushed respectful tones. There is a collective unspoken agreement among everyone present that results in a church-like atmosphere in which everyone speaks in muted tones. What is going on here? I don't know, I'm not Dr. Freud. But some people don't seem to get it; two young women in purple medical school garb giggled and laughed, touched the figure and dared each other to smell it up close. Please people, I mean, really.

Von Hagen's work, as you might guess, has elicited controversy. There is the question of desecration of the dead, is it or isn't it? Religion thus comes into play. In some sense is Von Hagen playing God? It is up to the individual to decide, but my guess is that those attending these exhibits have already made up their minds. The plastinations have been set by Von Hagen in artistic poses ranging from the sublime to the bizarre, to the downright ghastly. Many of these bodies have had their tissues flayed in creative ways, with the skin, muscles and other viscera flying off the bones as if blown by an invisible tornado. It's an unsettling effect, and I found it mostly distracting, but it is a means to reveal the underlying layers of vessels, nerves, organs and other undefinable things. Even more unsettling is the technique of slicing the bodies into vertical sections and then pulling the sections away at angles. This is very strange when done to the head, and heads are a very popular item in Herr Hagen's world.

Von Hagen's artistic anatomical poses usually depict the body in exercise or sports; dancers are well represented in this exhibit, but having done that ad infinitum, he has pushed the artistic envelope with his latest "cycles of life" concept (a very different exhibit not on display here) which chronicles the cycle of life from birth to death. In this exhibit theme, infants are on display along with a pair of cadavers which are depicted in the throes of (one would hope in a great leap of faith) consensual sex. I kid you not, images of this Banned in Berlin exhibit are easily revealed by a popular search engine. The whole point of Body Worlds is to reveal all the inner workings of the body, various diseases, poor lifestyle choices and the like in an effort to break through preconceptions and present a New Truth. These are not people having sex, these are plastinated formerly flesh forms posed in erotic representations. The utter lack of soul on display only serves to help us get in touch with our own soul more succinctly. It was banned as blasphemous in Europe but I would have liked to have seen it.

Interestingly, security is tight concerning photography---photography is banned and taking a photo will get you booted out. I asked a Tech Associate why this was and he offered a weak explanation about respecting the dead, that they didn't sign up, or didn't sign releases to have their pictures taken. (but they did for eternal coitus with strangers?) I'm sure this is more about selling their book of Body World Images at the Body World Gift Shop everyone must pass through on the way out. So these two images here are courtesy of our friends at Google. (and now a word from this blog's sponsor...)

Google---we know everything. About you. Trust Google.

A similar, but slightly different dancing couple can be found at the Tech Museum.

So what did I get out of this? Actually, quite a lot. There is a ton of useful health information to be had here about smoking, eating choices, and heart disease. Smoker's black lungs are exposed in all their gory. Plaque encrusted arteries are displayed. A whole photodocumentary on ethnic vs. typical American eating habits speaks volumes. There are incredible displays that are almost unbelievable, such as a human head composed of nothing but thousands of blood red vessels. But mostly what I got from this is what a magnificent machine my body is. Only when you can see the innermost workings displayed in all their incomprehensible intricacies can you appreciate how seemless and effortlessly the whole body works to accomplish what we ask of it. It makes me want to treat my body as a temple, to examine each bite of food I put into it, to treat it as best I can to make it last as long as possible in highest working order.

"To enjoy life fully treat your body like a finely tuned instrument".
"Treat your body with respect, it's the only place you have to live".

Truly, one of the most amazing exhibitions I have ever seen. I highly recommend you see this once.

Lastly, on the lighter subject of Deadheading, as it were, the Grateful Dead once made an album called "Infrared Roses". (smooth segue) If you've ever wondered, as I have, what Flash's heat signature looks like, wonder no more:

Flash's overheated brain belies his overall cool

That's it for now and as always,
Ride On my friends



  1. Wow, what an interesting post. It nice to hear what someone like you (level headed, open minded, nonjudgmental) thought of this event. I like the cyclist and dancer pics, but don't know that I would want to see them close-up. They're probably too graphic for me and it would be unsettling to my tummy.

    I'm having a hard time believing that "heat signature" is you because I know in person you're a lean, mean biking machine. I can't imagine how fat I'd look in a pic like that. ;-) Ugh. I'd have to double the width of my blog.

  2. Were there action figures in the gift shop?

  3. @itoadaso...You're cracking me up! Good one.