In Amsterdam they are hosting Gunther von Hagens's latest exhibition of plastinated human bodies. Its theme is a universal human quest- happiness. The Happiness Project features six floors of delicately dissected human bodies, bones, tissue, and organs.
My first encounter with plastination came when I went to a university open day for Biomedical Science. While one of the professors spoke to us, he held a quarter of a plastinated human head in his hands, absently turning it round and around while he spoke. I could hardly take my eyes off the piece of head. The eyes were closed and the strangeness of the isolated piece of face and brain gave it an almost living aspect. It was not a dead piece of tissue, rather it looked like a perfectly created piece of cyborg, ready to power-up once more if the missing pieces could be plugged back together. There was also a plastinated forearm and hand, skin removed to reveal the wiry network of tendons that usually jerk the fingers back and forth.
I was 18 at the time and had never seen human remains, and spent a lot of time afterwards questioning how I felt about those objects. They had been part of people once, they had represented part of an identity. But that had been in the past. As I had seen them that day, and as they would continue to exist, day after day into the future, they were now useful anatomical exhibits. That they were human flesh as well as plastinated polymers and chemicals was irrelevant in that respect. The view was twofold. On one hand, I could invent a backstory for that head and wonder how the man would feel now about part of his visage being preserved for so long, and to be restlessly rotated before a group of visiting school students. On the other, how fascinating that the sticky sclera and soft flesh, so troublesome to preserve and show, could now be safely and cleanly sealed forevermore, odourless and highly detailed, like butcher's meat in plastic wrap, but better. So safe, so free of decay and identity, so scientific.
I saw an earlier Body Worlds exhibit in London, in 2009. It had been disconcerting to see figures arranged in classic poses from art and literature. I had thought the plastinated bodies were there to teach visitors about human anatomy, but Gunther von Hagens was also using this new depiction of human form to present themes about the culture and art of humanity.
Plaques and captions added snippets of fact and narration on the themes of happiness. The floors represented different regions, from the uppermost cerebral discussions and displays of happiness, with brains and brain slices, to the basement floor of sex.
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