Gunther von Hagens (Anatomist)

Dr Gunter von Hagens in front of his work (from www.bodyworlds.com )


Today, Le Fox and I were invited, through mere serendipitous fortune, to a question and answer session with the mysteriously eccentric Gunther von Hagens. For those not in the know, the Body Worlds exhibitions have been confronting taboos throughout the world with its sensationalist if not puritanical insistence on public knowledge of anatomical detail since its Japanese inception in 1995. Gunther von Hagens himself is the leading proponent of the concept of a modern renaissance man. He claims:

“The presentation of the pure physical reminds visitors to BODY WORLDS of the intangible and the unfathomable. The plastinated post-mortal body illuminates the soul by its very absence.
Plastination transforms the body, an object of individual mourning, into an object of reverence, learning, enlightenment, and appreciation.

“I hope for BODY WORLDS to be a place of enlightenment and contemplation, even of philosophical and religious self-recognition, and open to interpretation regardless of the background and philosophy of life of the viewer.”

On Saturday night, I found myself in the extraordinary position of inquisitor in a closed session with the progenitor of Body Worlds 4 himself. My question, rather flacidly put, was:

“In your exhibition, you quote Descartes’ Medations on First Philosophy and allude to Vesalius’ groundbreaking discoveries in the field of anatomy, in particular his direct opposition to Galen. Descartes work marked the transition from a scholastic age of philosophy to an age of rationalist foundationalism (and Cartesian dualism), while Vesalius revealed to us fundamental new discoveries relating to that most basic of questions: of what stuff are we made? Where in the history of knowledge do you place yourself, and how do you judge your legacy to future generations?”

Of course, this paraphrased piece of nonsense is a dressed up version of the question I would have asked had my inexperience not entirely paralysed me with a mix of awe and stereotypical British politeness. As it was, I asked a messy question along the same lines but put with much less force and sadly lacking in eloquence. He answered rather obliquely, insisting that personal vanity did not enter into Body Worlds.

A plastinated man


Let me put my opinion on Body Worlds in some context. Initially, spurred on by the widespread pubic fervour, I was convinced by a wily Le Fox that it would be an experience not to be missed to see the public airing of Dr von Hagen’s most controversial exhibition to date. With considerable misgivings and almost insurmountable cynicism, we made our way to the MoSI, as it has been rebranded, to see what there was to see. Once I’d entered the first of the four or five crowded halls, I was struck by an intense feeling of awe, my gaze settling on installations of carefully arranged muscle and connective tissue. There were certainly cringeworthy moments, not least reading Goethe quoted next to ‘Gunter von Hagens (Anatomist)’. (Incidentally, when i put this to him, Dr von Hagens himself seemed noticably to cringe, placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of his wife’s design of the exhibition.)

I must admit however that the my general experience was overwhelmingly one of wellbeing and a greater awareness of the viscera of which we are, as human beings, composed. Interspersed between the deliberately provocative poses were some truly fascinating invitations to medical science and disease. Comparative displays of normal lungs and livers with those of smokers and drinkers were a graphic health warning and seemed to fulfill one of Dr von Hagen’s stated aims of promoting greater body awareness among the general pubic.

The rather disappointing truth is that in order to maximise visitor numbers, Body Worlds must rely on sensationalism for its marketing which paints it as anything but serious science. The meeting showed more than anything that Gunther von Hagens is primarily an academic with a passion for anatomy and its public understanding. The success of Body Worlds has had the unfortunate consequence of his message being subsumed by the publicity machine that surrounds him and the rabid commercialism that inevitably followed.

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