In the Flesh: The infamous Body Worlds exhibition

A gruesome display of preserved bodies, thinly disguised as art? Sign us up – where do we get tickets? The Truman Brewery on Brick Lane, deep in the heart of London’s curry community, providing opportunity for a post-mortem poppadum or two, should you be capable of facing any kind of foodstuff. The exhibition had courted controversy since it opened, with protests from the usual quarters, and acts of vandalism including someone taking a hammer to one of the exhibits – always a good alternative to argument and debate – but this had not deterred the crowds from coming out in force, with several million served around Europe. Make that several million and two…

The procedures involved were pioneered by Prof. Gunther von Hagens, an creepy-looking dude who seems never to be without his black Homburg hat [The only photo of him without it I’ve seen is from his Stasi police record – he was arrested for trying to escape East Germany]. In the 1970’s, he invented the basic technique of infusing bodies with plastic, replacing the fluids. It’s a form of embalming that preserves the inside of a body as well as the outside, allowing both to be displayed for the education, and, let’s face it, gross-out entertainment, of the general public.

Criticism has come from many areas, labelling the exhibition as not much better than a sensationalistic freakshow which exploits the dead and degrades life. But much of it seems hypocritical, when mummies and other preserved corpses are part of the collection in most major museums. The medical profession too has a fondness for collecting dead bodies, and then there’s the whole business of religious relics. And in the Middle Ages, a business is exactly what it was – at one point, Christ’s foreskin was on display in 14 different churches.

The exhibition starts off tamely enough, with cross-sections of bones, etc. All very educational. Not particularly interesting. We joined the throng flocking past the cases, towards the main course…

The hardest things was having to keep reminding yourself that these were not wax dummies, and not latex. These were once living, walking people like you or I. As someone who views his body as a black box – feed one end, wipe the other – it was amazing to be reminded of how complex we all are. We can’t even build a computer that doesn’t crash at least once a month, yet possess an infinitely more intricate piece of machinery that runs for 70 years without a break.

Other things I learned from Body Worlds:

  1. Smoking is bad. Early on, we stumbled across a comparison of the lungs of a smoker and a non-smoker – it was, literally, like black and white. Thereafter, every time we saw lungs, we’d go “Smoker…smoker…non-smoker…smoker…” If I had ever smoked, this exhibition would have cured me instantly.
  2. Rethink that position on abortion. One of the galleries had a succession of preserved foetuses showing them at different stages of pregnancy. The legal limit for most abortions in the UK is 24 weeks. Looking at the 24 week specimen, it was largely indistinguishable from a newborn baby. Personally, however, I don’t have a problem with this, since I figure abortion should be entirely legal at any point up until the foetus gets off the couch, finds a job and moves out of the house.
  3. You too can have an eight-inch penis. At first, I thought the specimens in the show were hung like Clydesdales. Hey, if I had equipment like that, I’d want my body preserved for posterity too. Then I realised where the testicles were. I always thought they were attached snugly to the body, but noooooo…there’s a long dangly cord. It also seems that much of the dick is tucked up inside too, so you just need to measure from the pelvis, and hey presto, a career in porn beckons.

Aesthetically, I confess that certain models did make us feel uneasy, though there was no consensus as to which ones. Chris was disturbed by the flayed guy with his skin draped over his arm like an overcoat. I got wobbly at the “exploded” specimens, where the body was split and separated, giving the appearance of, say, multiple heads. On the other hand, we were awestruck by the work on the circulatory systems. They replace the blood flowing through the veins and arteries with coloured plastic, then remove everything else. The result is a feathery shadow of the body that definitely enters the realms of art.

We bought the book. We bought the DVD. We bought the postcards. We bought the T-shirt. We even, heaven help us, bought the watch – though the strap fell off as soon as I opened the box. Cheap Oriental crap. We did, however, balk at the forms whereby you can donate your body to the exhibition. I can see why people do – it confers a kind of immortality, and means you don’t have to deal with the whole “getting eaten by worms” thing. But it’s not for me. The prospect of Japanese tourists poking my genitals and giggling is more than this mortal flesh can bear…

Open daily, 0900-2100, until Sept. 29th 2002: £10 adults.