Pity the Flesh!
24. November 2011 von Lauren
Körperwelten der Tiere, currently on display at Frankfurt’s Senckenburg Museum, seems almost cowardly after Von Hagen’s previous exhibitions featuring such gloriously plasticized human specimens. Where’s the drama we’ve come to expect of a human life reduced to a lump of (albeit exquisitely manipulated) flesh? What’s the shock value in exhibiting animals that many of us might have eaten the previous night for dinner? Why, we may ask, opt for the animal itself, when Von Hagens’ schtick, if we can call it something so trivial, is preserving and exhibiting the animal in the human? Considering Von Hagens’ previous feats, the exhibition, at least conceptually, is anticlimatic.
And yet, in person, it does not disappoint. It features the usual menagerie of creatures one might find at a zoo or aquarium or even a farm, arranged in the various positions Von Hagens has help to make famous–anatomy kept in tact, but exploded to facilitate viewing, head and neck cut in three sections, to expose the brain but also to simulate the grazing movement, and so on. The specimens, as usual, are spectacularly realized.
But this does not constitute their draw. If one wants to merely to see animal variety, one can just as easily visit a zoo. Some other logic is at work; the Körperwelten enterprise, to date the most visited travelling exhibition worldwide, touches on something more basic than an 18th century sense of wonderment in the face of natural diversity.
What it gives us is flesh, and lots of it. Flesh that we can recognize as the same substance in elephants and bunny rabbits and gorillas and, most shockingly, humans (as is proper, the exhibition does feature one human specimen). Flesh that does not decay. The effect is a revival of the horror and fascination first induced by comparative anatomy. But technology has taken us beyond skeletons, beyond bones- this is a different kind of anatomical kinship, a more visceral kind. Beneath the smooth skin, beneath the messes of fur, we are all muscle and organ. Gilles Deleuze, in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (trans. Daniel W. Smith, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004) writes:
Meat is the common zone of man and the beast, their zone of indiscernibility […]. The painter [here referring to Francis Bacon] is certainly a butcher, but he goes to the butcher shop as if it were a church. (21)
Von Hagens, too, lends his meticulous butchering an almost transcendent air; his cross-sectioning technique transforms the heavy dullness of carcasses into something paper thin and translucent–who needs to produce stained-glass windows when bodies are merely thousands of them compressed? Von Hagens has applied this technique to all sorts of living tissue–one may, in his online store
, choose to browse human, animal, or plant slices. Precisely the same technique that makes it possible for the man to plastinate a beetroot and make it into a more or less immortal slice also makes it possible to make a cross section on the sagittal plane and exhibit the human brain. Plastination is flesh rendered radically equal.
Körperwelten, in its sheer popularity, in the type of controversy it has generated, is the twenty-first century sideshow. One may contrast it with the 19th century wax figure exhibition, popularized by Madame Tussaud. Tussaud’s figures, unlike von Hagen’s anonymous specimens, were generally easily recognized celebrities and historical figures. They were also all surface, relying heavily on the property of wax to mimic the skin. (It’s a curious development that the English flesh, unlike the German fleisch, may denote both surface and deep tissue.) We may muse endlessly about why, in the digital era, which is often described as all surface, we have largely abandoned these monuments to celebrity in favor of spectacular after spectacular reminder of our own fleshiness.