WHO'S IN YOUR GENES »
EXPLORING THE POSTHUMAN IN THE POSTHUMOUS
Driving through Los Angeles I am surprised and excited when to see a series of banners advertising the Body Worlds exhibit at the California Science Center. I took the Body Worlds tour once before a year ago during a visit in Charlotte, NC. Since that time, a rumor had reached me that the exhibition had been banned from the states. I never confirmed the rumor, but had it been true, I would not have been surprised given that this travelling exhibition managed to become a bandwagon for controversy. A second chance to see the exhibit seemed like an opportunity that I didn't want to miss. I bought my ticket.
Picture a dead man standing up erect,striking a godly pose while bathed in light. His arms are positioned in such a way that defies gravity. In fact, to look at him you'd think that he's alive, but that's just not possible because you already know that he's dead. You know this because not only is he without skin, but organs are missing or exposed in plain view. This is not a description of the Body Worlds exhibit. This is an extract from the first full-scale illustrated book of the human anatomy, titled Commentaria Super Anatomia Mundini and published around 1535. However, you could easily apply the same description with one of the full body displays from Body Worlds and it would be a perfect fit.
The body arrangements in Body Worlds are a modern day echo of early Renaissance Medical Illustration's which made an oft unnerving cross between art and science. Unlike today's textbook images that present the human body as inanimate, the Renaissance artists imagined their skinless cadaver subjects in lively and sometimes provocative poses. There were a number of reasons for this. One, medical illustrators were held to high artistic standards at that time; but the second reason, more to the point of this article, is that there still was a lingering mystique about the human body that could only be evoked by art. While modern science remains impersonal in its approach to all things human, Renaissance artists managed to make the deceased body a very personal affair by illustrating dead bodies in motion. Body Worlds takes it a step further: the bodies in motion are real-life bodies.
It's almost as if the Renaissance Artists of old waited this long to pass the baton. Science has extended its hand several times, offering to continue the Aristotelian tradition of somatic scrutiny, but the Renaissance passed, not wanting the next spokesman for the sentient body to be a secular and sanitized approximating mannequin. Modern day human models and medical illustrations have a vapid view about life. What science avoids with plastic models, Body Worlds embraces with plastinated people. Impersonal is impossible for an exhibit comprised of real people, even if they are dead. Especially because they're dead! Even if the exhibitors tried, the fact that all these cadavers once belonged to living persons makes Body Worlds unavoidably renaissance, and inevitably existential. It is presented as science, which presents a problem: how can Body Worlds be "science", when it is overtly sacred in its perception of the human body? Science maintains its credibility largely by keeping a poker face when speaking logically about the anatomy. Body Worlds chucks all lifeless language in favor of editorial commentary that does little to hide a rather noetic opinion about the human body. The presentation of the cadavers alone seem to belie the neutral voice of science.
The exhibition oscillates between gnostic and artistic values while passing between rooms filled with a dark, theatrical ambiance. Unlike museum art, which is usually revered against a sterile white backdrop, the curators opt for theatrical darks and shadows to frame their displays. The cadavers are captured in directional spot lights, as if on stage, while performing a dramatic action that is frozen in time by plastination. Science has been packaged with theatrical elements before, to make it more engaging for an entertainment hungry audience; however, the theater in Body Worlds has nothing to with entertainment. It is all about reverence. For instance, upon entrance of the Los Angeles exhibit is an obeisant muscular-skeletal figure, on its knees praying with its heart in both hands, an image so strikingly reminiscent of Artist Marc Quinn's, 2006 Painted Bronze sculpture, Angel, that we have to wonder if Body Worlds is more concerned with the art of life than the science of the body.
The artistic undercurrents of the exhibition is partially why it has raised so many red flags among ethicists; it is not so much an scientific autopsy and more of a gnostic autopsia. This is to the credit of the curators. Many artists have tried to make sacred statements about the rights of ownership of the PostHuman Body. Body Worlds raises the same points for the Posthumous Body. Every plastinated body remains the inalienable property of its deceased owner.
“I see dead people”
Until now religion has been the only brave contrarian to deny science its claim to the last word on humanity; and for that it has taken a liberal beating. Body Worlds imposes no religious points about being human, nor is it convincing in its claims of being solely scientific. Instead it is a counter-point to somatic ambivalence. Each display seems to question the merit of any view that isn't existential. We do, after all, exist, and all Matrix-musings considered, this existence is "real" enough that we can even raise doubts about it. Is our existence a sacred creation or a stochastic roll of the dice? Who knows. Either way, we are the embodiment of this curious condition called Being. A nagging fact that doesn't seem to go away, even upon death.