My father stands at a glass case admiring a human body. The hand has been reduced to muscle and bone, and you can see the intricate weave of ligaments and nerves that run down the arm to control each finger.
“Look at the complexity,” my father, a doctor for the past 40 years, says, his voice full of wonder. “There must be a God.” This is his second tour of Body Worlds. The show he saw in Phoenix didn’t include the enormous and ambitious plastinate of a horse and rider, so he came to Dallas, before the exhibit packs it up and ships out on May 28.
As we walk through rooms of meticulously arranged bodies that reveal the worlds beneath our skin, my father explains the power of the quadriceps, the gift of a pair of lungs, the feat of a four-chambered heart that somehow continuously and rhythmically pumps blood for an average of 76 years.
I’d already been to Body Worlds, and I wasn’t particularly thrilled about a second visit. But seeing it through my father’s eyes is an entirely new experience -- an understanding of what German anatomist Gunther von Hagens is aiming to communicate with his show, which is nothing less than the miracle of human life.
“As a plastinator, death is very close,” von Hagens says in an audio-tour interview. You come to understand that “death is normal; life is the exception.” He says he wants to increase people’s awareness of their own health, inspire them to take better care of their bodies. Amid the cadavers set in various poses are cases of organs beset by diseases that are easily preventable. Black lungs doomed by smoking, enlarged hearts ruined by high blood pressure and hardened arteries. On a screen by the lung display, Yul Brenner implores people to stop smoking just months before his own death from lung cancer. People declaring their intention to quit have half filled a glass box with abandoned packs of Camels and Marlboros.
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We walk up to two bodies frozen in a figure skating pose, the man lifting the woman up over his head. It reminds me of the sculptures at the Dallas Museum of Art’s Matisse, Painter as Sculptor exhibit -- the parallel lines of arms and legs, the use of negative space to balance the figures, the sense of movement reminiscent of Degas’ famous ballet dancers. My father is thinking the same thing.
“What a work of art,” he says. Indeed, when I press the button to listen to the audio tour, Hagens says that after his first plastinate exhibit in Tokyo, people complained that the bodies’ stiff standing positions were disturbingly ghostly. So he began making them more lifelike. “A scientist who embraces art,” he calls himself.
Body Worlds has been controversial in some circles, and there’s definitely something a little eerie about looking at dead people. But those who complain miss the point. What makes the show remarkable is that it manages to transcend death and leave you present to the wonder of life. As von Hagens says, it’s about our physical being, not individual tragedies.
“The presentation of the pure physical reminds visitors to Body Worlds of the intangible and the unfathomable,” reads Hagens’ explanation at the exhibit’s end. “The plastinated post-mortal body illuminates the soul by its very absence. Plastination transforms the body, an object of individual mourning, into an object of reverence, learning, enlightenment and appreciation. I hope for Body Worlds to be a place of enlightenment and contemplation, even of philosophical and religious self-recognition, regarldess of the background and philosophy of the viewer.” --Megan Feldman