I See Dead People: Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds
So I got up really early this a.m. to hang out with a bunch of stiffs -- specifically the mannequin-like corpses of Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds 3, on exhibit at the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix through May 28. By now, most people are familiar with von Hagens' work, wherein he replaces the fluids and fat of a donated corpse with polymers, thus preserving human bodies for display -- usually without the skin. Hagens' post-mortem plastinates have toured the world, from Japan to Germany, becoming such pop culture icons that they were featured in the latest Bond film, Casino Royale. (Daniel Craig kills a bad guy at a Florida Body Worlds.) This morning's preview was for the media, and there was a press conference with von Hagens present. Also in the house: Mayor Phil "Goober" Gordon, who never misses an opening, whether it's for a new Safeway, a truck stop, or a museum exhibition like this one.
Hagens wore his trademark black fedora and was accompanied by his hella-hot wife Dr. Angelina Whalley, who doubles as his business partner. Whalley, von Hagens, Phil, et al. all talked about what a great teaching tool Body Worlds is, how the slices of diseased lungs wean the kiddies off ciggies, and all that jazz. I don't really buy that bunkum. Basically Body Worlds is a 21st Century sideshow. That doesn't mean a sideshow can't be educational, but let's be real: The museum's charging a $22 entrance fee, and the cadavers have been donated by their previous owners. So someone's makin' bank. I don't really see much of a difference between a mortician showing off bodies of outlaws for a quarter, like they used to do in the old days, and von Hagens' grotesquely posed mortuary.
The sourcing of the bodies being used is a little difficult to follow, as NPR reported last year:
NPR has learned there's no clear paper trail from willing donors to exhibited bodies. People donating their bodies to von Hagens send consent forms to his Institute for Plastination. They pay to have their bodies transported to a plastination facility. There, their donor forms and death certificates are checked.
That paperwork is then separated from the bodies, which can be used for displays or sold in pieces to medical schools. No one will know for sure, because each plastinated corpse is made anonymous to protect its privacy.
According to this report, Von Hagens has admitted to using unclaimed corpses for plastinates that he in turn sells to universities. But he insists none of these Chinese medical school leftovers are used in the touring Body Worlds' exhibits. Confusing things is a competing show called BODIES...The Exhibition, which does admit to utilizing unclaimed cadavers. Human rights groups have charged such corpses might've come from executed prisoners, wards of mental institutions, and the like.
But why spoil the circus worrying about how they treat the elephants? Wherever the bodies come from, the show itself is both mesmerizing and macabre. There are slices of human feet, hands, and just about every part of the anatomy you can imagine. Skinless former humans are posed in a variety of ways: leaping over a hurdle; with arched back on balance beam; poised mid-air on a skateboard; embracing a member of the opposite sex in a Kama Sutra-like move, and so on. The bods all look young and in-shape, but according to von Hagens, this is due to the process of plastination, and the corpses are often older than they seem. Apparenlty von Hagens can tell the age of a specimen by looking at its fingernails.
Seeing the bifurcated penis of the hurdle-leaper, and studying the grimy-looking epidermis of "The Skin Man," who holds his pelt aloft like a pair of flesh-colored long johns, these were admittedly creepy experiences. Almost as creepy as having to shake Mayor Phil's clammy hand, but that's another story. The glassed-in exhibit called "The Thinker," was eerily beautiful. Bright red because it displays the arteries of the vascular system, the ghostly humanoid sits as it studies a head lying on the table before it, a head formed only from a network of arteries.
The real sideshow action comes when you visit a black-curtained space filled with preserved embryos and fetuses at various stages of development. Even at eight weeks, the embryo is visibly human. And though I'm pro-choice, seeing that can't help but make one reexamine the issue. Or at least sell you on the wonders of the morning-after pill. On the fetuses, you could see fine strands of hair on their heads, and study their wrinkled skin, which seemed patched and repaired in places, like some weird doll from the 1800s.
Otherwise, little things would catch my eye, like the eyelashes and eyebrows, or the belly buttons -- every adult corpse had one. Sometimes, I swear the musculature of a display seemed to be flaking or breaking away slightly from the form. A tad unnerving, that. I was also fascinated to discover that the women were still appealing, even with their outer layers of flesh stripped away. As with the men, all the naughty bits were in tact. And on the whole, the female form, shorn of its fat and skin, is still more shapely than its counterpart.
So is it worth $22? Well, I think $22 is a bit steep. $15 per adult'd be more like it. Still, I'd give the venture a stubby thumbs up, though I would've liked to have seen a plastinated adult corpse with its skin in tact. On the other hand, maybe that'd be like seeing one in a morgue, a real downer.
While I was there, I'm not kidding, one of the PR chicks asked me about my 2004 spoof "Forever Yours" that I did under the pseudonym Esteban Sauer. The spoof imagined a company called Preserve A Life which preserved croaked loved-ones for private display, and I recall mentioning the Body Worlds show then on at the California Science Center in Los Angeles towards the end of the tall tale. The little blonde seemed genuinely concerned that I was going to do something similar for this write-up. Uh, no. However, if Von Hagens is lookin' to franchise out his company in the PHX, I may just be his man.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.