The popularity of Gunther von Hagens’ plastinized cadavers, exhibited in art and other museums, has always puzzled and disturbed me. Puzzled me because people generally have an aversion to death and his exhibits are–literally–made up of flayed and posed cadavers. Perhaps that is part of the appeal: The bodies do not seem real.
But I am also disturbed because it seems to me that plastinizing and posing bodies as art is both nihilistic and voyeuristic–cadaver porn, if you will. And indeed, that was literally true when von Hagens created an exhibit of cadavers having sexual intercourse.
Even though von Hagens is in ill health, his work continues. Indeed, people are apparently lining up to be plasticized and posed for eternity. From the Wired story:
Earlier, von Hagens had revealed another of his works in progress, a gruesome scene he calls “Headless Into Death.” So far it consists of a smashed-up, ’80s-model Volkswagen with a dirty American flag spread across the seat. The car belonged to a Body Worlds donor. When his wife, another donor, succumbed to cancer, the owner of the car committed suicide by driving headlong into a tree. Von Hagens sawed the vehicle in half, and now he plans to put a section of the driver’s headless body in the front seat. The dead wife has already been processed here in Guben, he says. He wants to stand her off to one side, waiting for her husband as a full-body plastinate in silicone. As he explains the scene, it sounds as if he’s playing out a fantasy with dolls, a diorama of how he might like to die himself, revving till the very end—not puttering with Parkinson’s.
Whatever he decides for this unlucky pair, one thing is clear: They won’t have a chance to argue, nor will their next of kin. Donors to the plastination program sign away their right to say how their bodies might be posed. (The consent form does ask if they agree to be “exhibited in public” or “interpreted as anatomical works of art,” but it also says their answers to these questions are “recommendations rather than binding terms.”) Von Hagens can arrange his corpses in a mock coitus or cast a mold of them to make an ersatz Jesus Christ—both of these are on display in Guben—or he can carve them up and ship the parts for use in classrooms. He can do with them exactly as he pleases.
What to make of this? A new wrinkle in the celebrity culture in which one can, in a sense, become famous, if only as a displayed body? Perhaps:
Many have been willing to supply their flesh. The business staffs a body hotline and the deceased save the cost of interment or cremation. The deal is so appealing, in fact, that the donor database is overflowing. Angelina says they’ve had to make a waiting list for would-be plastinates. She also tells me that of the people who have enrolled, just one in 10 gives ideas for how they’d like their bodies shown. The rest are OK, or even eager, to leave their fate in von Hagens’ hands.
How we treat the dead tells us how much about how we perceive the importance of life. Context is everything in matters such as these, of course. We display mummies, for example, but that is more a matter of awe and absorbing human history than getting an adrenalin thrill out of death. It is also true that some religious orders display skeletons and bones to be viewed. But, however misguided these endeavors might be, they are not meant as entertainment in the same sense as von Hagens’ plastinated bodies. To the contrary, the point is to remind people to pay heed to eternal things, e.g., that dust they were and dust they shall become again.
This seems very different to me. Slicing, plasticizing, and displaying cadavers to provide a nihilistic or hedonistic thrill proclaims that our lives have no inherent meaning beyond the sensations of the moment. If I am right about that, von Hagens’ continued popularity is a very disturbing sign of the times.