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Configurations 9.1 (2001) 99-126

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Bodyworlds: The Art of Plastinated Cadavers

José van Dijck
University of Amsterdam


In the 1950s, when synthetic materials had recently been introduced, people used to admire plastic tulips for their realistic quality. Consumers were charmed by the obvious advantages of these fake flowers: they never withered, and every tulip looked absolutely perfect. When I buy a bouquet of real tulips these days, it strikes me how much they resemble plastic ones. By and large, the famous Dutch tulip is no longer an exclusive product of nature, for its cultivation increasingly depends on treatment with chemical and biotechnological means. The advantages are obvious: the flowers remain fresh much longer, and every single tulip meets the requirements of standardized size, shape, and color. Whereas before, we wanted the artificial object to look like a real one, we have now entered an era in which we want the real object to look like "perfected nature." We are no longer satisfied with a plastic imitation of an organic object, yet neither are we satisfied with nature's own imperfect products. So we tinker with flowers and treat them with chemical and other techniques, until they meet our aesthetic standards. The contemporary tulip, in other words, has become an intricate object, an amalgam of organic material, cultural norms, and technological tooling.

This new preference for the enhancement--instead of imitation--of natural material also pertains to the human body. Dentists who, in the 1960s, did not think twice about pulling a patient's teeth and replacing them with a set of dentures (cheap and low-maintenance), now make every effort to save the original ivories. They have an extensive [End Page 99] collection of tools and plastic materials at their disposal to perfect our pearly whites, until they resemble the (retouched) teeth of fashion models in magazine pictures. In a similar vein, our physical appearance can be optimized by plastic surgery, anabolic steroids, and perhaps, in the near future, by genetic therapy. "Natural silicone breasts" is no longer an oxymoron, but an indication of a reality in which female bodies are reshaped by cultural norms with the help of advanced technology. The preference for a manipulable body perfectly fits a material, technological culture in which imitation has been replaced by modification. Just like the tulip, the body has become a mixture of organic matter and artifice.

IMAGE LINK= If the living body has become a mix of nature and artifice, it is no great surprise to find this also applying to the dead body. In the past twenty years, Gunther Von Hagens, a German anatomist from Heidelberg, has developed a preservation technique that he has dubbed "plastination." It involves a sequence of chemical treatments of the corpse, which is then modeled into a sculpture by the anatomist's hand and scalpel. The resulting anatomical object looks like a conflation of an opened-up mummy, a skinned corpse, and an artistic sculpture (Fig. 1). Von Hagens calls his collection of cadavers "anatomical art," which he defines as "the aesthetic and instructive representation of the inside of the body." 1 After its first public showing in Japan, Von Hagens's remarkable collection Körperwelten (Bodyworlds) was exhibited in Mannheim in 1997-1998, and in Vienna in 1999. The German exhibition lasted four months and attracted more than a million visitors--an exorbitant figure for what was advertised as a scientific exhibition--and the Vienna event was kept open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week to accommodate all visitors. Even shows in major art museums devoted to the work of canonized painters seldom receive this much popular attention.

What, then, makes the plastinated bodies from Mannheim so fascinating? Why did Bodyworlds become such a success? Evidently, in our increasingly medicalized society, people's interest in the human body has risen in proportion to their interest in its normally hidden dimension. And yet, other anatomical-pathological museums in Europe have offered inside glimpses of the body as well, without attracting anywhere near the numbers of visitors that Bodyworlds has. A factor contributing to its popularity...


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