Sunday, November 12, 2006

looking inside yourself

This past Friday night, before a cracked radiator doomed my weekend, I went to the Boston Museum of Science with a friend to see an exhibit of dead people. Their bodies had been donated to an institute in Heidelberg founded by a controversial German anatomist, Gunther von Hagens, who in 1978 began to perfect the technique to preserving human flesh using plastic. After death but before their bodies decay, they are embalmed and placed in a bath of acetone, which replaces the water in their bodies. Next the acetone can be boiled off and flesh is either infused with polymers, including silicone rubber, epoxy resin and polyester, providing clear views into body parts and systems. The result is part art, part classic sideshow of the bizarre, and part education in the physiology of humanity.

Many of the full-body plastinates were posed in creative positions: some as if to freeze that person in an instant of time, like a ballerina on pointe or a gymnast on a set of rings or a pair of figure skaters; others were in more artistic poses, like the man whose musclature was walking a step ahead of its skeleton or the man whose flesh had been pulled forward in sections like open drawers on a cabinet; others were clinical what-ifs, as in 'what if you sliced a body lengthwise?' or 'what if you showed only the blood vessels?'. Numerous body parts, including ones with deadly conditions like coal miner's lung or an enlarged heart, were on display in cases next to plasticized slices through these parts or systems. Although the pregnant woman with a five-month old fetus was curtained away but displayed with many malformed babies and fetuses at all stages of development, I think we missed a few of the more controversial plastinates shown in the catalogue shown in the gift shop, such as the man holding out the skin on his body like a crumpled suit or the man praying while holding his heart in his hand.

There were some shocking poses there, faces pulled inside out and off of heads to reveal plasticized brains and viscera, all of which made you pause for a second and remember that this was all dead people, wonder about all these people did while living and then think that most people are destroyed after life is over, while these people's bodies will be admired for years in this condition, achieving a sort of immortality reserved only within the proxy making of sculpture in ages past. The donors remain anonymous in name, date of birth or cause of death, the opposite of what we have come to expect from our chiseled stone memorials and other funereal traditions. The array of cancerous lungs, cirrhotic livers and ruptured hearts also delivers a powerful morality by causing viewers to identify these bodies parts with their own body and personal choices. Although you aren't allowed to obvious reasons, you can touch the dead literally in this exhibit, although they do not smell or decay and remain to the most microscopic detail intact. It has been said that, unlike the spiritual immortality of most religious burial rituals, plastination provides 'a uniquely secular, material form of immortality'.

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