Body Worlds 3: Momento Mori and Art

Welcome to Body Worlds, an exibit (an ossuary, a reliquary, a carnal house, art?) brought to you by the German Gunther von Hagens.

Yes, a crowded, claustrophobic winding gallery of corpse-stuff, some posed, some dismembered displaying all their normal or pathologic glory. From the walls hold banners with quotes from thinkers from Nietzsche, Kant, and Seneca, our greatest minds musing on mortality, amid neatly displayed relics of it.

Upon winding through the child oriented Phoenix Science Museum, getting your ticket stamped not once, but three times (a metaphor, perhaps?), you enter a dark gallery, with dark walls, teaming with middle aged human life. In the corner is a posed cadaver, muscles exposed, one bowed "crusader style" before a simple wooden cross, praying to the fine capillary filigree of a human heart, in the middle a row of medium height glass cases filled with various joins, the bits and pieces that we take for granted. People mill about in an orderly fashion about these exhibits, staring curiously, little speaker things crammed to their ears, as is the fashion.

Its all very... curious. Wander around a flayed female, crouched, ready to spring, behind her wondrously muscled buttocks the round sphincter, you can duck down and look up it, to her intestines, if it pleases you. The reality eludes. It still is very abstract, scientific, aesthetic. A large black banner on the wall, pictures of Czech ossuaries, catacombs of arranged bones, skeletal monks arranged in eternal prayer, a brief academic blurb on the changing culture of death, the ultimate abstraction.

The exhibit winds down blind corners, in the nooks sculpted corpses, some throwing javelins, drawing bows, dancing, skating, active even in death, completely exposed. Muscles bunch, tense, a moment away from doing, eternally away from doing. They never will, since they were injected with plastic, after the fluids were sucked out of them by a vacuum. Is saying their lifelike too much? Cursed to be in a single moment, a parenthesis, a pause, before unleashing the tension in their red, striated, muscles, but they are not cursed, since there is no they, as another banner tells us, via the dead voice of Nietzsche. He tells us, through the ages, that such thoughts are for children, like the ones playing with the interactive exhibit on Stanely Milligram's famous experiment.

A handful of the corpses seem aware of their own unlife, staring blankly (for how else do corpses stare?) at the myriad veins covering the severed head of some departed comrade, its (his, her?) spinal column gracefully covered with black silk, concealing... what? What is their left to conceal in this traveling menagerie? Later on, we come across what was once a man (as evident by the testes dangling from slender pale ducts, the poor limp penis) sneaking off with his own burial shroud. This might have been near the hanging intestines, or perhaps the ruptured aorta, to be honest, it all blends together after awhile. A horse is a horse, and a corpse is nothing but a meaty looking curiosity. Then there is the man holding his skin away at arms length, ether contemplating the facade of the everyday, or perhaps holding it away in disgust, the face visible in reverse, dangling at roughly knees, patella exploded out to expose the joint.

Its like Francisco de Zurbaran's "St. Francis of Assisi in His Tomb" (in the Milwaukee Art Museum), where the robed St. Francis sits, contemplating what can only be his own skull. The symbol of his own mortality. For us, our mortality is merely an abstraction, it isn't real. This exhibit slaps us in the face with it, its impossible to see humans an anything other than finite, insignificant, bits of walking and talking meat. Each of these exhibits point obliquely to our own mortality, that lung or kidney can only exist in a living body, once they sit in a display for us to gawk at, logic dictates that there is a corpse on the other side. Than man on a skate board, or that woman sectioned into thirds, these were once our neighbors, us. That fine lace of blood vessels at the end of that hand in a jar, that once caressed a woman, felt the fine skin of a child, picked the nose from which it was once connected. That cadaver hurdling a bar, those three cross-sections of brain jutting above the coarsely muscled and anonymous face, those used to, not long ago, feel, love, and get headaches that drove her to grab Aspirin, which coursed through that fist-sized bulge in her chest, the stomach.

This is death, refined. Think of it as freebasing mortality. It is repressive, here the dead out number the living. Everything wreaks of the taint of death (metaphorically, not literally, there is no small here apart from that of the air conditioning, and the teaming life admiring the display), there is no place to sit, get a clear head, without the site of mortality haunting you. Yes, it starts out as academic, but then these cadavers become more and more human. Academics can not hold, the fantasies we tell ourselves about death start to dissolve, leaving us with just this. Momento Mori, indeed. The careful anonymity of the corpses starts to digest itself, the fact that there is no biography, no faces, no names, to these bodies, make them oddly more human, and in that disturbing. Instead of being John Smith, it becomes John Everyman. Instead of an artful display of anatomy, we get Nietzsche's abyss staring into us.

Here no one smiles, there is no laughter. The concealment breaks down, like a long buried funerary shroud, everyone is affected. The atmosphere is oddly solemn, quite people, slowly wandering, their eyes downcast, surrounded by lively corpses, the solemn masses surrounded by the dancing dead.

In the small bits of pathology, you find skeletal fingers pointing at you. Decayed, lungs, black (literally) with emphysema, ruptured arteries, cervical cancer, brains warped with Alzheimer's, hydrocephalic brains. Pretty corpses, next to what will actually bring you down.

A darkened room, a row of jars, the fetus at one week, two weeks, 8 weeks. At 14 weeks have a human being, small eyes, delicate and perfect fingers. On the wall cases with babies, pulled from some dead womb, permanently posed on the verge of birth, but dead. They skipped the long, joyous middle bit called life. Imagine that 14 week old proto-human being sucked from the womb, those small bright blue eyes, its hard to be pro-choice in this room. Its hard to be pro-life in this room, full of... ensouled cells. Where can I stand on that abstract issue after seeing the subject with my own eyes? I still don't know.

There is no god here, just flesh, or rather the lack of it. We turn our eyes to the creator of this exhibit, who is he? What drives one to this?

What is my final impression? I don't know. It affected, but I'm not sure if it was positive, or negative. I recommend people to see it though, like it or not, it will allow you to see things you wouldn't, both physical and intellectual (is there a difference, the walls of brain cross sections beg differently). I warn you though, for a couple hours afterwards it is hard to see people as people, and not just containers full of... stuff. See that woman, as she walks down the road, see here muscles ripple, her tendons stretch... Wait... she has skin! Next time you see a steak, think of the similarity to your own meat.

Technorati Tags: , , , , ,

powered by performancing firefox


Anonymous said...

i refused to see the exibit when it was in seattle on account of it being barbaric and my being squeemish.
way to stimulate amaze and nausiate me in one fell swoop.

miss you rev.

Anonymous said...

This is exhibit is amazing! We should all be privliged enough to see this and it's ability to let us see what we cannot; inside ourselves. I cannot speak highly enough of this. It was not ment to ignite but engage.

Anonymous said...

The comment above me is rediculous. I can understand squeemish, but to call educating youself babarick is a bit assanine. I guess the educational value would lie in the eyes of the beholder.Those who come to see this for shock value should stick to freak shows. I'm a massage therapist who is gratefull to have this viual aide.