the Science of Art vs. the Art of Science

Gabriel Furmuzachi

The Körperwelten exhibition (in French - Art anatomique, la fascination de l’authentique) has been advertised as controversial at least from an ethical perspective. I knew this before I went there and I expected to be able to make things a bit more clear in this respect. However, instead of clarifications I managed to come up with more questions, this time dealing with the approach toward art and science that the man behind the exhibition, Gunther von Hagens, seems to have.

The exhibition starts at a slow pace. At the beginning it was a bit awkward, thinking that all the exhibited ‘articles’ were parts or even whole human bodies. Former human beings. And it was awkward because usually we inter or dispose of our dead. They are not to be seen: they decompose and stink. One of the friends I went with at the exhibition was trying continuously to catch a trace of foul smell. Her efforts were not awarding although she persisted. She touched the bodies, tried to feel them. She tried to convince herself that they were real. But then, they were not real because they were ‘plastinats’, they were carcasses impregnated with plasticine. However, they were not mere plastic either. It was confusing for her. She tried to make sense out of the whole thing. It was something unusual and she, as well as (perhaps) any other visitor had to wrestle with this feeling of being unable to classify what could be seen, because there was no other chance for something like this to become part of our experience. This could explain why some people considered it disgusting, or morally wrong. Is this sort of playing with the bodies of what used to be real people, something morally wrong? It seems that in the same way that we have difficulties trying to decide at what moment in time an embryo becomes a human person, we also have difficulties figuring out when we only deal with a body, with a mass of dead cells and not with a human person as such. So, where do we draw the line? What is permissible and what not? What is possible and what not? All these questions cramp one’s mind as one tries to understand what is shown and to make sense out of it.

The exhibition presents us with an explanation of the process of plastination. Roughly, this is how it works: the body or parts of it are cleaned and the water and fat are removed from them and then the whole thing is immersed into a transparent plastic solution and, under certain conditions, it becomes like plastic itself. Think ‘pickles’. So, with this technique, the body can be the playground of any kind of modelling, of emphases, like a blackboard or, better off, like a map. A map of the human body in all sorts of instances. A map of the human body made up of a human body. The message is the media! This is one locus of controversies - these particular instances. Human bodies are spread around envisaging a ‘Swimmer’ here, a ‘Chess-Player’ there, a ‘Running Man’ on the other side, a ‘Thrower’, a ‘Horse Rider’, etc. They are given names. In a similar way, names are given to works of art, to statues, for example. These are not labels, describing them, but names. They have their own individuality as art objects. Gunther von Hagens’ work is reflected in them, they represent ways in which he would like to express his ideas or vision of reality. The trouble is that this vision of reality unfolds as a very scientific one. This scientist’s eye made it so that most of the things appear to have a certain scientific structure. The bodies were stretched following straight lines. There were sections through them that were completely flat although there is nothing straight in our bodies. So, the ‘author’ wanted to combine, in a way, what is scientific (the view of the bodies as objects of scientific interest) and what is ‘artistic’ (by giving us access to the bodies in somehow usual, casual, normal positions but from original perspectives). Now, these former human bodies have their own stories that somehow come on top of the stories that von Hagens wants to tell us; they do not belong to him but they also cannot be simply discarded. It’s like a contest: whose story is going to be more compelling? Is the insight into the human body as it appears sliced in a few good lengthwise slices more interesting than the multitude of tattoos that can be distinguished on what used to be its skin? These signs make you think immediately about who was that person. Reality kicks in. Not only to let us know that we are dealing with real human bodies but also to make us think about human persons. The plastinates’ presence, although meant to be scientific, cannot be reduced to only that. Perhaps they are there for the sake of ‘authenticity’ and thus, the ‘art’ might only suggest the scrupulously scientific and aesthetically challenging incursion into the real world of individual bodies.

There were some of Andreas Vesalius’ dissection drawings scattered on the walls. It was interesting to see the similarities between the way the presentations were made at that time and the way they are made today. There were drawings representing different sorts of tissues, muscles, etc. But the interesting thing is that the ‘subjects’ of those drawings were somehow placed in the middle of fields, with cities way beyond them, or in gardens surrounded by statues of lions on pedestals. Then, there were skeletons mimicking praying, there was a portrait of a young lady whose back was opened so that the muscles and back bones were exposed, the flesh and skin blossomed on her hind as a set of strange wings, etc. And so it was with the plastinates: the ‘author’ tried to integrate them in what is familiar, in what we see every day, in what we do every day, in how we think most of the time. This is why we could see a guy playing chess, with his brain visible through the opened skull, with his ligaments and muscles loose, though trying to sit in a pensive manner. This is why we could see a woman split in half, swimming in two different ways. This is why we could see a guy running (almost like the proverbial business man) with his muscles coming after him; he was only missing a suitcase.

So, what I had been offered was this: a scientific approach which was not terribly exciting (because most of the things I knew from long ago, from my first classes of anatomy and biology; I knew how things are supposed to look like and how they are supposed to function, the difference being that the plastic models were void of any identity, empty and silent, while the plastinates were more… ‘interesting’) and an artistic view which presented things in a very little elaborated aesthetic expression. What was I to choose?

To conclude I would like to think about some ideas that a contemporary abstract painter had about painting and about art making in general. She writes:

“Remember a self-portrait by Rembrandt - what are we looking at? We’re not really looking just to see what he looks like or even to see how he himself thought he looked. What we’re looking at is how he communicates to himself (and to us) what he can do with paint on canvas and how he can make it look. We can see the decisions he made (for instance- to let the thick creamy brush stroke on the bridge of the nose stand for a highlight) - but we’re also aware of his sheer pleasure and delight in manipulating the medium. We can see the movements of his hand and his eye, and through them - his mind. We can join him, make a connection with him, as one person to another, through the centuries which have passed since he made that mark”. (Ann Clarke)

To go back to Körperwelten, I am wondering what am I supposed to take as Gunther von Hagens’ artistic contribution. The guy behind the scene seems to be able to make most of the people think that the artistic side of the exhibition is something to be taken into consideration, perhaps, the most important feature of it (if we are to follow the French title of the exhibition, at least). To this opinion his black hat with a large rim might contribute a great deal. Is he a real artist? An easy answer would be that he’s not. He did not make those bodies. He takes them for granted and just exhibits them although the way in which he does that is what is crucial, although nothing like this has been done before. It is, undoubtedly, a provocation. He uses the bodies and, consequently, their stories. Not the stories of former people but of present exhibit parts, the stories that von Hagens wants them to tell us. This is where his ideas were supposed to be expressed by this ‘unusual’ medium that the body represents. If we can join Rembrandt through his work, is it possible to do that with von Hagens? Is it possible get in contact with the author and experience the world as he experiences? With this exhibition we rather empathize with the ‘plastinates’ and their histories than with anyone else’s view of reality. If we get anything from von Hagens is the scientific perspective. The aesthetic here is substituted by the scientific. It’s like a fake orgasm. You’re promised the world and you build up to it and when it comes you don’t feel anything and you have to… improvise. The improvisation here is the scientific part. The expected beauty is transgressed into dull science.