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Body Worlds, The Atlantis Gallery, London

Chris Bloor found Body Worlds, an unusual show of dead bodies in London, to be essential viewing.

“What indeed, does man know of himself! Can he even once perceive himself completely, laid out as if in an illuminated glass case? Does not nature keep much the most from him, even about his body, to spellbind and confine him in a proud, deceptive consciousness, far from the coils of the intestines, the quick current of the bloodstream, and the involved tremors of the fibres?” Nietzsche, ‘On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense’

Body Worlds: the anatomical exhibition of real human bodies is an exhibit at the Atlantis Gallery in London’s East End to be held until the end of September 2002. It has caused controversy because all the displays in the exhibition are of the remains of real human beings, who have donated their bodies specifically for this purpose.

The exhibition has been made possible by a unique combination of technological advance and the changing attitudes of the law. The technology is a process termed plastination by its developer Professor Günther von Hagens. The body is preserved via plastic injection under conditions of vacuum. The resulting bodies are incredibly versatile – the various skeletal, circulatory, respiratory, muscular systems can be stripped out and displayed next to each other. Bodies have been cut and crosscut into sections, revealing all to the gaze of the visitor. Individual organs are displayed in isolation and as part of the specific systems which they comprise.

The legal issues which had to be resolved centred around whether it is permissible to exhibit human body parts. In 1998 the artist Anthony Noel-Kelly was sent to prison for issues surrounding his own exhibition of human body remains. In that case it was deemed that Kelly had unlawfully obtained the parts from medical storage – he was sentenced for a serious theft, rather than desecration.

Body Worlds has toured Europe and has been to Japan, where it was greeted with great popularity but also controversy. A protest was made soon after the exhibition began in London when a man attacked and damaged one of the displays.

The exhibition urges visitors to:

“Discover the mysteries under your skin.” The philosopher Michel Foucault (1926- 84) wrote in The Birth of the Clinic of the development of the Western concept of reason, and how this demands that the truth of human life reveal itself. The most significant arena for this inquisition into truth is the human body. Foucault’s conception of bio-power is an account of how the scientific striving for truth leads to an obsession with categorisation of bodies and all of their components, revealed, by dissection, to the cold gaze of reason.

Foucault would find much to please him at Body Worlds. The various systems of the body are displayed in every possible variation, with accompanying information concerning how the systems interact. He would have noted the obsession with disease and physical deviation, as the healthy body is displayed in juxtaposition with the failing body. Tumours, cysts, birth defects, deterioration of the lungs and liver, even chronic constipation are all displayed in minute detail.

There is also a strong moral message which Foucault would have enjoyed, for he charted the history of increasing medical knowledge of the body and its attendant moral imperatives. We all have a health and it is up to us to maintain it for individual fulfilment and in order to take our place as contributors to society.

Hence the emphasis on the lung damage caused by smoking. Visitors are told that smoking a pack a day is the equivalent of pouring a coffee cup of tar into your lungs each year. The evidence of the damage this does is graphically displayed, and you can buy a souvenir Tshirt which depicts this. The moral responsibility to one’s life and one’s loved ones could not be clearer: choose to smoke and blacken your lungs in a horrific way, or choose not to smoke and enjoy healthy, pink lungs.

Well not exactly. A quick word with one of the helpful assistants reveals a book with further comparisons of an urban dweller and an inhabitant of the countryside. The city lungs are not as bad as those of the smoker, but they are hardly pink either. More stained and sooty, really.

This makes the moral choices less clear cut. As an individual I can choose to refrain from smoking, but I cannot control the levels of pollution in my city. Should I move out of the city? What colour of lungs must I strive for? The moral choices facing me in taking care of my body begin to seem less black and white than I first thought – more shades of grey.

Moving through Body Worlds offers much pause for philosophical reflection. What is a human being? A variation on Gilbert Ryle’s famous category mistake seems apt: we’ve seen the circulatory system, the skeletal system, the nervous system, the reproductive system, the digestive system, etc, and all the organs and where they fit, but where is the person itself? When will that mystery be revealed?

The moral issue of human dignity has followed the exhibition on its travels. Is it acceptable to treat human remains as a public spectacle? Can an individual make a decision to donate their body so that it is useful for other persons even after their death – for the qualification of physicians and the instruction of laypersons? In Kant’s terms, does the display of human remains for the purposes of education not amount to treating people as means to an end, rather than as ends in themselves?

One of the show’s critics, the Lutheran Bishop Ulrich Fischer, argues in the exhibition’s excellent catalogue that “Even if individual body donors see their dignity as preserved, as plastinated human beings they are an intrinsic part of a larger, voyeuristic event, which violates human dignity.”

Foucault might agree, but would argue that the exhibition itself does not run counter to our existing conceptions. Body Worlds is not an affront or challenge to our society, it preserves and makes explicit our culture’s attitude to the body, to death, and to human dignity. If these are problematic it is because there is something deeply disturbing about Western society’s conception of the body, its successful life, and its eventual death.

In making this explicit, Body Worlds is essential viewing.

© Chris Bloor 2002

Chris Bloor is Director of Development of the Oxford Philosophy Trust and Assistant Editor of Philosophy Now. His pub philosophy group, the Bloomsbury Set, meets in London.

At Atlantis Gallery, the Old Truman Brewery, 146 Brick Lane, until 29 September 2002. phone 020 7053 0000. www.bodyworlds.com.

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