Monday, 18 August 2008

Body Worlds exhibit, Museum of Science and Industry

When you go out with a scientist, a surprise visit to see a selection of plastinated human remains can constitute a birthday treat in a way it might not do for ordinary citizens. If you haven’t been to see this in Manchester yet it’s too late now but numerous variations of the exhibition constantly tour the globe so if you’re ever in town when they are, you have to witness it. It was my first time visiting the Museum of Science and Industry, housed in the old Liverpool Road station buildings, which is frankly a disgrace after living here for twelve years. I was shocked by the size of the place, we had to walk miles down into the atmospheric recesses to get to Body Worlds. It was all worth it, even if the rooms they’d chosen were slightly too stuffy and harshly lit.

If you ever watched the live televised autopsy series that Gunther von Hagens did you’ll have gathered he’s the consummate mad scientist with unbridled ego to match. This exhibit shamelessly places his quotations alongside the greatest philosophers, writers and thinkers of the last few millennia. By the time you leave though you’ll probably agree the ego is actually well deserved, the techniques he’s mastered have made the kind of advances you really only see once every few generations.

As the history of anatomy is bound up as much with art as with science, the layout and context of the pieces repeatedly flag up tise connection to give a full chronological understanding of just how impressive what you are you looking at is. In fact the divergence of science away from art only happened after the first great leaps forward had happened in our anatomical understanding, hence da Vinci’s fascination with both art and autopsy. As part of their agreement to be used, donors sign a contract which amongst other things permits the use of their remains in an artistic context. (A touching example of one of these permission formed part of the exhibit). So you get elaborate Classically-influenced poses, or three guys sitting round a card table cheating at poker, or a swimmer in mid-stroke. Sometimes, being art, it falls flat aesthetically. The Venus-like figure emerging from a rock struck me as a tacky way to end your days, but you can’t win ‘em all.

So, the bodies. The fascination with the incredible amount of detail this kind of preservation allows outweighs any of the heebee-jeebies you might feel at being surrounded by corpses. The plastination and dehydration methods render the flesh in a way that basically makes them look like fibreglass. There is no gore, just the endlessly complex labyrinth of your own insides in astonishing detail. It’s all presented in layman’s terms too but without being patronising. The most weirdly affecting things are the seemingly simple pieces, the cut away layers showing lung cancer or the brain haemorrhage that killed. My resolve to never smoke again was strengthened and I overheard others talking about various cancers and strokes that killed loved ones. Witnessing yourself from the inside out means you leave slightly humbled by your own mortality but also amazed at your own impossible complexity. How egotistical is that?

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