Gunther von Hagens’ BODY WORLDS 1, 2 and 3 (hereafter referred to collectively as BODY WORLDS) are traveling exhibitions of “real human bodies” that have attracted very large crowds and a great deal of controversy. The bodies in question are human corpses that have been plastinated through a process that infuses body tissue with polymers and resins to prevent decay and that allows whole bodies to be posed. The strong yet ambivalent public response is partly due to the multiple levels on which the exhibit operates. In large part, BODY WORLDS expresses a “museum ethos” oriented to public education. Its didactic aim is to communicate the importance of preserving one’s health and the complexity of the human body. However, BODY WORLDS is also an art show. Some of the “whole-body plastinates” are outfitted with sports gear such as skis and skateboards to “bring them to life” as dynamic sculptures. Other bodies are transformed into surreal body-sculptures, for example, a man holding his own skin or a body opened up like a chest of drawers. Small cards that bear a title, the stylized signature of Gunther von Hagens, and the date of creation are placed alongside many of the plastinates, marking them as artwork and von Hagens as the artist. Finally, BODY WORLDS also entertains the public in the manner of a circus or freak show that presents a shocking and fascinating spectacle of death in exchange for a fee.
This target article in the American Journal of Bioethics is followed by 12 Peer Commentaries ranging from No Dignity in BODY WORLDS: A Silent Minority Speaks and Metamorphosis: Beautiful Education to Smarmy Edutainment to The Virtues of Blurring Boundaries in BODY WORLDS.
BODY WORLDS exhibitions have seen their share of controversy:
In January 2004, the German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that von Hagens had acquired corpses of executed prisoners in China; he countered that he did not know the origin of the bodies, and returned seven disputed cadavers to China.
In 2003, while promoting a display in the Hamburg Museum of Erotica Von Hagens announced his intention to create a sex plastinate. In May 2009 he unveiled a plastinate of a couple having sex, intended for a Berlin exhibition.
Corpse artist/anatomist Gunther von Hagens poses near his latest creation (designed for the necrophiliac, presumably).
Finally, Lady Gaga might incorporate the theatrically flayed bodies into her act (in case her plastinated feminist meat dress wasn’t enough for you):
LADY GAGA has come up with a way to make her live shows even more shocking – having dead bodies on stage.
The singer is teaming up with corpse-preserving scientist GUNTHER VON HAGENS to spice up her already blood-soaked Monster Ball Tour.
. . .
For more info, see Cadaver Shows: Voyeuristic or Educational?
Burns L. (2007). Gunther von Hagens’ BODY WORLDS: selling beautiful education. Am J Bioeth. 7:12-23.