Shiny, happy people


Shiny, happy people ‘Body Worlds’ and the commodification of health

Megan stern

Gunther von Hagenʼs touring ʻBody Worldsʼ exhibition of dissected, ʻplastinatedʼ human corpses has generated a great deal of public interest, much of it critical and even hostile. The use of animal body parts in art installations and exhibitions and documentaries exploring human anatomy may have become familiar fare in recent years, [1] but the display of actual human flesh seems, for many people at least, to constitute an unacceptable violation of human dignity. There have been attempts to ban ʻBody Worldsʼ in all of the countries that have hosted the exhibition thus far. In Britain the pressure group Pity II, comprising parents whose children were involved in the Alder Hey Hospital body-parts scandal, attempted to prevent the London exhibition. It has also come under serious criticism from the British Medical Association and Nuffield Foundation, as well as being subject to critical demonstrations from visitors, one of whom threw a sheet over a pregnant figure. According to Paul Harris, von Hagen has been shunned by fellow scientists in his native Germany and Günter Grass has allegedly compared him to Joseph Mengele. [2] Prior to the recent public performance of an autopsy, von Hagen was threatened with arrest, and the police, alongside the media, were out in force to attend von Hagenʼs demonstration. All this hostility and distrust can easily be explained as the inevitable consequence of the breaking of a powerful social taboo, but there is more to the commotion surrounding ʻBody Worldsʼ than this. The exhibition is shocking not simply because it goes against the grain of what is apparently acceptable. It also represents, in the most dramatic terms, the redefinition of the human body within consumer culture. In this sense it is eerily representative of current values.

The art of plastic

In some respects at least ʻBody Worldsʼ treatment of the human body is extremely conventional. Notably, it reproduces the long-standing assumption within anatomical tradition that the male represents the anatomical norm and that the female is of interest primarily as a means of demonstrating the reproductive system. Of those whole-body plastinates on display at the Atlantis Gallery in Shoreditch, East London last year, only two were female. Of these one was pregnant, reclining on one side with a hand behind the head, a pose taken straight from pornographic cliché. The other drew attention to the position of the uterus and ovaries in relation to other organs and was suspended, midair, in the graceful position of a swimmer. This figure also had significant quantities of hair on its head, despite the uniform baldness of other plastinates. By contrast most male plastinates were displayed in heroic ʻmanlyʼ poses, with titles such as ʻthe horse-manʼ, ʻmusclemanʼ, ʻthe swordsmanʼ, ʻthe runnerʼ and ʻthe chess playerʼ. The urinary system was represented exclusively using male organs, and, while the breast and female reproductive system were displayed in isolation, male reproductive organs were not treated in the same way. The penis thus appeared as part of the ʻnormalʼ body, rather than as the male organ of reproduction, a process that is exclusively identified with the female body in the exhibition. ʻBody Worldsʼ may thus be shocking in so far as it features ʻrealʼ corpses, but the ways in which these corpses are represented is, certainly in terms of gender, extremely conservative.

Basing the poses of a number of his whole-body plastinates on works of art, von Hagen also offers us the human body in ways that are already familiar to us aesthetically. This is humanity as we already know it, through the paintings, sketches and sculptures of da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Cézanne, Dalí and Boccioni, among others.

Ironically, given von Hagenʼs insistence that ordinary people should have access to ʻthe real thingʼ, these are ʻactualʼ human bodies that have been reworked to look like aesthetic representations of the body. The plastination process itself, in which all bodily fluids are replaced with a variety of synthetic materials including silicone rubber, epoxy resin and polyester, enhances this sense of the bodies as constructs.

The plastinate, denuded of the qualities that would make it fleshly, becomes a static, odourless, impermeable and clearly delineated reworking of the original body. Real, decaying corpses are messy and smelly, qualities which play a crucial role in rendering the corpse taboo, the destabilizing abject that must be made safe through rituals of purification and detachment. Plastination arguably constitutes just such a ritual, so that instead of shocking visitors by confronting them with abject corpses, ʻBody Worldsʼ renders these corpses safe, unthreatening. ʻBody Worldsʼ is reassuring because, whilst undoubtedly promising the ghoulish thrill of encountering authentic human corpses, it also neutralizes this encounter. It gives us the corpse in spectacular fairground mode:

exciting but safe.

In other words, the exhibition goes beyond the economy of representation and offers us the dissected corpse as simulacrum. The original body cannot anywhere show itself because it constitutes the very material from which the simulation is made. The actual body has been displaced by a hyper-real one whose durability and authenticity entirely displace the need for the real thing. Imogen OʼRorkeʼs comparison of what she calls the ʻnew necro-bodyʼ to a Barbie doll is telling in this respect. While Barbie is femininity packaged as idealized spectacle, the plastinate has a similar relationship to the corpse. If real women and corpses age and, in the case of the latter, putrefy, their plastic substitutes go on for ever. Likewise Barbieʼs idealized shape and the plastinateʼs perfectly defined anatomy displace the inadequacies and uncertainties of the real thing.

In each case the commodity promises what the real body can never deliver, and, since immortality is even less attainable than feminine perfection, plastination has a very particular appeal. Von Hagen himself has suggested that plastinationeliminates anxiety because I am able to extend my physical existence after death … I donʼt know whether we continue or not after life, but this exhibition gets much closer to the soul than the Church because you are so close to the body. I donʼt fear death any more. [3]

Plastination promises the donor neither the spiritual eternity of most religions, nor the cerebral eternity of cryogenics, but physical permanence: plastination offers a uniquely secular, material form of immortality. In the comments of many donors, the avoidance of physical decay is prominent among the reasons given for registering as a donor. ʻBody Worldsʼ is, quite literally, a consumer heaven.

One of the criticisms most frequently levied at von Hagen is that he is commercially, rather than (as he claims) educationally, motivated. His self-conscious showmanship, the dramatic advertising used to promote ʻBody Worldsʼ, the glossy website and the range of products available from both website and exhibition – including tie pins, puzzles and soft toys – all support this view. But the commercial appeal of ʻBody Worldsʼ goes beyond these trappings; the very process by which von Hagen constructs his figures is a form of commodification. As such, the exhibition can be understood in terms of the redefinition of health, the body and death within the increasingly commercialized medical system of contemporary Britain.

The foundation of the National Health Service in 1948 institutionalized the idea that health was a matter of state responsibility towards the public. Within this context, patients tended to defer to medical experts, in whose hands they placed their bodies. In recent years, however, these patients have become consumers of health care with contractual relationships to service providers. In the new order consumersʼ rights over their bodies and the bodies of their relatives are paramount. Furthermore, as state paternalism has diminished, health-care systems place increasing responsibility on individuals for maintaining their own health. Health, in other words, is less a matter of social welfare and more a matter of individual choice, selfawareness and responsibility.

Von Hagen, who, according to Stuart Jeffries ʻsees himself on a global mission to end the elitism of the medical profession which, he believes, has denied the lay public access to a better understanding of their own bodiesʼ, is very much in tune with this new medical culture. The Anatomy Act of 1832, which abolished anatomy as a public spectacle and mode of punishment, played a crucial role in creating a culture of professional exclusivity and authority within medicine.

The act empowered doctors, whilst diminishing the authority of patients, leaving them with little option but to trust the judgement of professionals. ʻBody Worldsʼ and von Hagenʼs recent public autopsy begin to reverse this process, echoing the contemporary shift in power between the medical profession and patients/consumers of health care.

But von Hagen is not simply offering people anatomical understanding. Just as the new consumer ethos of health care places emphasis on individual self-awareness, so ʻBody Worldsʼ encourages visitors to identify themselves, quite intimately, with the dissected figures they have come to see. The animated poses of many plastinates and their proximity to visitors seem designed to encourage visitors to reflect upon their own bodies and the ʻBody Worldsʼ website features visitorsʼ comments that highlight this sense of identification. One visitor ʻmarvels atʼ his ʻcomplexityʼ, another says that ʻBody Worldsʼ ʻprofoundly changed my attitudes towards my own body, towards life and death. I feel myself in a different way now, more intensely.ʼ A third talks of smiling while watching ʻthe dressed, living bodies standing next to the plastinated, mute bodiesʼ. The slippage between visitor and exhibit becomes even clearer in relation to von Hagenʼs donation programme. The inclusion of donorsʼ comments and donor application forms within the exhibition encourages visitors to conceive of themselves as future plastinates, and one of the attractions of becoming a donor is the annual invitation to witness the plastination process. The display of plastinated organs in ʻBody Worldsʼ clearly links self-awareness and self-maintenance.

As Chris Bloor points out, the number of tar-stained and cancerous lungs in the exhibition carries with it a clear moral message about personal responsibility. The same can be said of the array of cirrhotic livers, hardened arteries and haemorrhaged hearts; it is difficult to look at this collection of diseased organs without feeling a very direct connection with oneʼs own body and wondering how its organs might compare to those on display.

It is necessary to be well informed, self-aware and responsible within the rationale of consumerism, because this enables the individual to make good choices. In the context of health care this means that the patient should not simply accept what he or she is told, but should instead be in a position to make informed decisions about available options. In ʻBody Worldsʼ donation is figured as just such an informed decision. The majority of donors made their decision after visiting one of von Hagenʼs exhibitions (in March 2002 there were 3,200 donors registered, and according to Jeffries ʻeach exhibition leads to a flood of volunteersʼ) and, as noted above, they are invited to attend annual plastination demonstrations, so they clearly know (despite much criticism to the contrary) what they are letting themselves in for. The public dissections nostalgically recalled by von Hagen used the bodies of executed criminals, anatomy being part of the punishment for murder. In more recent times, medical etiquette has dictated that relatives of organ donors should be given as little information as possible about what exactly will happen in order to minimize their distress. Von Hagenʼs donation scheme contradicts both of these positions, presenting plastination, dissection and public display as personal choices made by well-informed individuals.

At the same time, von Hagen is absolutely in tune with the current guidelines concerning the procedures for procuring and retaining body parts and organs, guidelines which emerged in response to changing attitudes towards medical care. The Redfern Inquiry into the Alder Hey scandal, in which thousands of infant and fetal body parts were removed and retained without parental consent, emphasized the great importance of gaining informed consent. That is to say, the report rejected the routine practice of ʻprotectingʼ parents from distressing clinical details and insisted that only procedures of which parents were fully cognizant and for which they had given consent could be allowed. As consumers of health care, in other words, parents have a right to knowledge and informed decision-making that supersedes the doctorʼs right to research. Arguably, it was this same cultural shift which led to the scandal in the first place. While it was precipitated by the serious misconduct of one pathologist, Dick van Velzen, disclosures concerning his malpractice very soon escalated into a widespread condemnation of the routine removal of organs at all research hospitals that went back to the early years of the NHS. What had been acceptable within the context of medical paternalism is condemned within that of consumer health care. Ironically, given that Alder Hey parents formed the most vocal opposition to ʻBody Worldsʼ in Britain, von Hagenʼs donation programme is exemplary, according to the terms laid out by the Redfern Inquiry. In so far, then, as ʻBody Worldsʼ and ʻPity IIʼ adhere to the principles of informed consumer choice, they appear to have much in common.

Too close to home

Where they differ, however, is in their response to the other half of the consumer health equation. Patients may be redefined as consumers in so far as they are incorporated into a discourse of rights and choices, but – given the new economic imperative within health care – as bodies requiring treatment they are also transformed into commodities.

They become the specific illness or dysfunctional organ from which they suffer and enter the medical market place accordingly. It was the idea of their childrenʼs body parts being reduced to objects in this way that incensed Alder Hey parents, and the spectacular display of corpses in ʻBody Worldsʼ could do nothing but anger them. The language of rights and choices deployed by the Redfern Inquiry clearly emerges from the idea of the patient as consumer, but the corresponding idea of the patient as commodity is implicitly condemned. In ʻBody Worldsʼ the proximity of these ideas is much clearer, as plastination is represented as a desirable, well-informed consumer choice.

The full extent to which ʻBody Worldsʼ reveals the uncomfortable relationship between consumer and commodity emerges from accusations that have been made against von Hagen concerning the sources of some of his plastinates. Although von Hagen is clear that all the whole body plastinates included in his exhibitions have been donated for this specific purpose, he does not make the same claim for exhibited body parts or whole body plastinates sold to research and teaching institutions. In the light of his move from Germany to China and Kyrgyzstan, where legislation concerning the use of dead bodies is far looser than in Europe, there has been concern over the sources for these plastinates. In particular, news that he had bought fifty-six bodies from a psychiatric hospital in Novosibirsk, Kyrgyzstan, led to widespread criticism in the press. The image of von Hagen acquiring quantities of unspecified bodies, plastinating, dissecting and then selling them on to medical institutions is clearly very different from the one evoked by the ʻBody Worldsʼ donation scheme. Von Hagen represents plastination as an enlightened, individual choice, and to this extent the plastinates enable consumer desires and fantasies. However, his alleged use of the Novosibirsk corpses would suggest that plastination might also exemplify the bodyʼs reduction to an exchangeable object within the global marketplace. Moreover, the fact that those who buy into the ʻBody Worldsʼ donation scheme are predominantly white Europeans (as well as being predominantly male, the whole body plastinates on show at ʻBody Worldsʼ are also exclusively white), while those whose bodies have apparently been bought are mentally ill, impoverished or convicted Asians, reflects the global relationship between consumer rights and commodified bodies in contemporary medical culture.

Whether or not there is any truth in the allegations brought against von Hagen, the fact that such speculations circulate at all suggests the pertinence of ʻBody Worldsʼ to recent changes in medical culture. Like the scandal of organ selling in the Third World, the story suggests an uncomfortable awareness of the reduction of people to commodities that the language of medical choices, rights and responsibilities avoids. ʻBody Worldsʼ attracts attention, whether from supporters or detractors, because it highlights, in spectacular ways, the changes that consumer culture has wrought upon ideas of medicine, the body and death. If it has been a recurring source of offence, hostility, legal intervention and allegation, this is perhaps because it articulates so clearly what is too close to home.


1. ^ ʻKorperweltenʼ or ʻBody Worldsʼ (, which had previously been shown in Tokyo, Mannheim, Vienna, Basle, Cologne, Oberhausen, Berlin and Brussels, was preceded in London by the 2000 ʻSpectacular Bodiesʼ exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, which included uncannily lifelike anatomical waxworks. In the summer of 2002, the Science Museum in London also ran the high profile ʻGrossologyʼ exhibition, an educational tour of the human body targeted at schoolchildren. Damien Hirst, Marc Quinn and Rick Gibson are among a number of British artists who have used animal or human body parts, tissues and fluids. ʻBody Worksʼ will be shown next in Munich.

2. ^ Stuart Jeffries, ʻThe Naked and the Deadʼ, Guardian, 9 March 2002; Paul Harris, ʻWorld Trade in Bodies is Linked to Corpse Art Showʼ, Observer, 17 March 2002.

3. ^ Imogen OʼRorke, ʻSkinless Wondersʼ, Observer, 20 May 2001.