Bodies of Evidence

This sweater's killing me...Spectacular Bodies
The Hayward Gallery
19 October 2000 – 14 January 2001

Art and science are usually regarded as being separate, and often contradictory disciplines, emotion and logic in opposition without much apparent common ground. But such ground certainly exists, and the Spectacular Bodies exhibition covers some of it, with particular regard to human anatomy.

The element of it which has received most publicity are the wax models used to teach anatomy, back in the days before every medical student got their own corpse to cut up. Then, the only available bodies were those of condemned criminals, making dissections a rarity, and something of a theatrical event as a result. In lieu of real flesh, elaborately detailed facsimiles were constructed out of coloured wax and other materials, and these form the centerpiece here.

Looking at them, a whole range of emotions ran across my mind. They seemed unerringly lifelike, the wax glistening moistly, but there is also something deeply disturbing about seeing human bodies cut up and displayed like slabs of meat in a butcher’s shop. Others seemed like alien flowers, petals opening to reveal strange organs of unknown purpose – for how many of us know what a pancreas looks like, anyway? Yet the more moderately discreet were barely distinguishable from regular statues. Take someone’s skin off, pose them appropriately, and they don’t look all that much different from a body-builder or well-toned athlete, though it was clear where Clive Barker got many of his ideas for Hellraiser!

'A necessary change of Heart'  by John IsaacsEven now, the form is carried on, albeit less for instructional purposes, and merely for the artistic content. Shown on the right, is John Isaacs’ A Necessary Change of Heart, which sat in the corner of the gallery, as if its subject had fallen from some great celestial slaughterhouse. While almost all the rest of the exhibits were behind glass, this one was out in the open (albeit with a museum guard hovering nearby), adding to its queasy appeal. If Isaacs ever wants a career in the movie industry, I’m sure he has a great future ahead of him, making highly-convincing special effects.

Less interesting were the more regular works of art, although they did show how many artists have taken a specific interest in anatomy: Stubbs (when he wasn’t drawing horses), Rembrandt, Durer, Turner and Da Vinci among them. Some of the last-named’s notebook pages were on display – borrowed from the Queen – and, as an aside, it was interesting to see them written in “reverse”, from right to left. There were also some “installations” from modern artists, which were without exception, crap: what exactly is a video of open-heart surgery playing above a neatly-made bed supposed to signify? I did have to laugh at the jar of bulls’ testicles which had a mouth projected onto it, if only for the look on people’s faces when they read the label, and realised exactly what they’d been staring at for the past few minutes.

Fortunately, the non-art exhibits had a fascinating range, from medieval textbooks which sought to explain how the four humours affected personality, through to a jar containing a pickled foetus, with beads on its wrist for no readily apparent reason – eat your heart out, Damien Hirst. Ironically, there were also masks cast from the faces of Burke and Hare, the notorious “resurrectionists” from Edinburgh, whose trade was in supplementing the officially-available corpses, with ones they ended up creating themselves. What goes around, comes around, and they now find themselves the objects of public attention.

Would you like a hand...? Another important area covered by the exhibition, was the way scientists have attempted to link mood and character to physical attributes. The ‘science’ of reading faces, physiognomics, has been around at least since the time of Da Vinci, and was strongly supported by the likes of Francis Galton – who also was one of the discoverers of fingerprinting. Phrenology, the reading of the bumps on the head as an indicator of mental disturbance or criminal tendencies, lead to the gathering of enormous amounts of data, though it seems that their interpretation tended strongly to pander to the preconceptions and prejudices of the time.

There is a lot to see in this exhibition – perhaps too much – and by the end, I was feeling distinctly body-weary. There’s no doubt that we are all examples of remarkable natural engineering, but as with cars and computers, my interest in the internal workings is limited, when things are otherwise going well. However, the images of the anatomical models will stay with me for a long time, and the names of Pinson, Zumbo, Susini and Towne undeniably deserve a higher place in art history than they have received. Definitely, their wax works

Been There, Dome That

I have a certain warmth of feeling for the Millennium Dome: anything which causes Tony Blair so much embarrassment and grief can’t be all bad. But, having said that, I probably wouldn’t have bothered going if it hadn’t been at the suggestion of my parents who were visiting London, on their way to holiday somewhere less wet. Which could pretty much mean anywhere on the planet, outside than the South-East of England over the past couple of weeks. Indeed, my touristing tolerance had already been hammered by a ‘Ghost Walk’ round the Tower of London that would have benefited from scuba equipment, and a failed, but equally moist, attempt to see some 5th of November fireworks. At least the Dome was inside…

And make no mistake, there is an extraordinary amount of stuff to see there: after a full day, some eight hours of gawping, we still hadn’t seen six of the fifteen zones, nor any of the stuff outside the central arena, save for the Blackadder Back and Forth show. which is shown in a nearby pavillion. However, while the sheer scale of the edifice, and its contents, cannot be denied, the quality of the exhibits leave a good bit to be desired in that, while the day passed by with surprising swiftness, there is very little in there that I have the slightest interest in seeing again. Case in point: the Play Zone contained a number of futuristic activities and leisure pursuits…none of which kept my interest for more than a few moments. If this is truly what we have to look forward to, I foresee hard drugs becoming the pastime of choice.

Similarly, the main Millennium Show had a good fifteen minutes of material in it – so it’s a shame it lasted three-quarters of an hour. Some of the aerial ballet was genuinely breath-taking, but there were so many dead spots that the overall effect was of a school Christmas pantomime, directed by a severely over-ambitious drama teacher. The Peter Gabriel soundtrack was kinda cool though. It all has something to do with a conflict between Earth People and Sky People, but even after reading the programme notes, I’m not entirely sure why one side appeared to be clad in matching pyjamas, who the good guys were, and what the overall message was.

Dome on the range Probably something about living in peace, harmony and balance with nature, for there was also an underlying preachiness about many of the exhibits which could become immensely irritating. The very first zone was Money, and consisted largely of the City of London telling us not to spend too much or too little, because it would cause financial chaos. Excuse me, whose money is it again? Oh, yes, mine… Worst of all was Living Island, which took ecological sensitivity to neo-Fascist levels: no matter what the activity, it was Bad For The Environment And Should Stop Immediately. I did like the display of flotsam (or is it jetsam? Never can remember…) picked up off the beaches of Britain. Egyptian packaging, Norwegian beer-cans – the world has truly become a global village. Albeit not quite in the way intended by the Home Planet zone, an extraordinarily sappy tour of Earth, hosted by two aliens (“No, we can’t stay – but they can!”) which says that we are the most amazing thing on it, and thus presumably implies it’s okay for us to rape the rest of the planet. Cool.

I liked Travel, which traced the progress of transportation from our own two legs through space travel, and beyond on into the future. It managed both to be informative, and provide an emotional content which was all too often missing. On the other hand, the Body zone was a severe disappointment. A pumping heart and a brain telling Tommy Cooper jokes was about the limit of it, as well as an exhibit designed to identify you by the patterns of veins in your hand, which didn’t work. This was a definite problem; I suspect the lack of money, and the approaching end of its life, means that as things break down, they weren’t getting repaired, and so a significant percentage of things were out of order for one reason or another. Sometimes, I accept, it wasn’t the Dome’s fault — the previous day, someone had used a bulldozer and tried to steal the 350 million pound diamond exhibit, so that was shut. Instead, we took a photo of ourselves, standing next to the closure sign, looking mournful.

Oddly, the lack of attendance worked in the Dome’s favour: the first estimates required a daily attendance of 35,000, but I suspect that if such a volume was ever reached, the facilities would be creaking at the seams, and you would certainly lose the airy sense of space which was one of the most memorable features. You could wander into any zone almost at will, without queueing; we didn’t bother with the couple of exhibits that did have a line, partly because I suspect they wouldn’t have been worth the wait. Food and drink were equally easily accessible, in a broad range of forms, though irritatingly, you weren’t allowed to take these into the zones: we were barred from the BT-sponsored Talk zone, for unlawful possession of candy floss. It’s good to talk, providing you don’t eat at the same time.

A cunning plan forms The problem is that too much of it seemed to have been inadequately thought out. A time capsule containing visitors’ answers to question, designed to be opened in another thousand years, is quite a good idea. But in the year 3000, is anyone really going to care what we thought about while ironing? [And that was by no means the most banal question] The educational content was rarely significant, and neither was there much to inspire awe, or beyond any kind of mediocrity. It could certainly have challenged everyone – exhibitors and attendees – a lot more, rather than telling them what to think in the most obvious of ways. It says a great deal that Blackadder Back and Forth, with its cunning, cowardly but undeniably human anti-hero, was about the most engaging thing in the entire day.

Nowhere was the Dome’s spectacular failure as a commercial attraction more evident than in the gift shop. With almost two months to go, they had already embarked on an Everything Must Go! clearance sale, which had some spectacular reductions. Shirts which had been twenty quid at the start of the year, were now 4.99 and you got two for the price of one. If you could get to the shop without having to pay for admission to the whole facility, that would be your entire Christmas shopping sorted. However, such is the low status of the Dome, that you might as well go round with “I AM A PLONKER” on your chest, and none of the designs appealed, even at that low, low price. However, I do wonder if some of the limited edition stuff – first day covers and the like – might be worth picking up, on the grounds that no-one will bother, and so they might well end up being worth more than you’d expect…

So, what to do with the Dome when it reaches the end of its useful lifespan in seven weeks. Tony Blair won’t let it stand as a memorial to the total incompetence of Cool Britannia, though it is entirely fitting – being an impressive shell whose actual contests, once you get inside, leave a lot to be desired. Maybe we can do as was done with London Bridge, and sell it off to the Americans, perhaps for use as a shopping mall – it’d help if we could stick a flag on it, and convince them it was actually Buckingham Palace. But I think we should engage in a grand but empty gesture to match the entire concept. According to one of the tumblers (now reduced to 4.99), it would take Niagara Falls ten minutes to fill up the Dome: I think it would be an interesting and worthwhile exercise to ship the entire unit across to upstate New York, turn it over and prove the validity or otherwise of that statistic…

Dome pic by… FreeFoto.Com