horror venality and beauty conflate in controversial show

It’s a very strange feeling to suddenly recognize you are looking up the flayed vagina of a dead woman in a public place while hundreds of…

It’s a very strange feeling to suddenly recognize you are looking up the flayed vagina of a dead woman in a public place while hundreds of people mill about you.

This was one of several moments of horror that occurred as I toured the Body Worlds 3 exhibit at Science World in Vancouver.

For those not familiar with Body Worlds, there’s some tough news ahead. Dead bodies are now theatre, and what a theatre!

More than 30 years ago, a doctor in Germany named Gunther von Hagen discovered he could dip the flesh of dead creatures in acetone, leaching out their decayable material, replacing it with liquid plastic.

It’s a patented process he’s termed plastination. Somehow, while working on this process, probably because it began as a medical project, he was able to commandeer human bodies and perform his experiments on preserving them.

The end result is one of the stunning museum shows of the 20th century.

The various Body Worlds exhibitions display (usually skinned) corpses and a multitude of body parts, sometime in macabre and unseemly positions.

The shows were immediately controversial, and von Hagen had to fend off numerous criminal charges revolving around laws dealing with the desecration of the dead and his acquiring of bodies.

In fact, he no longer shows in Germany due to the court challenges his shows generate.

Despite the revulsion of authorities in continental Europe, the exhibitions have been an enormous, legally uncontested, success in the United States and Canada.

Since 1995, the various manifestations of Body Worlds have grossed more than 200 million dollars in entrance fees and been viewed by 17 million people.

People who visit these exhibits will encounter some of the most disturbing, as well as beautiful, creatures they will ever see in their lifetimes — the bodies of other human beings in all their glory and disorder.

There are corpses reduced to their circulatory systems — arteries and veins — the remainder bleached away by acid and ultrasound.

A praying man holds his heart in his hand. A smoker’s diseased lung is opened up for viewing. A flayed skateboarder performs a neat, flamboyant flip.

You can view a knee replacement exposed in the flesh of a leg, artificial valves in a heart, breast cancer, enlarged prostates, cancer of the ovaries. The giant holes in a brain made by Alzheimer’s disease.

And if you want to see what your liver looks like after too many Sour Toe cocktails, this is the show for you.

Perhaps the most controversial display of the various exhibitions is of an eight-month pregnant young woman, head shaved, partially flayed (her breasts notably intact), leaning sensually on a platform like an odalisque in a French painting, her belly opened up so you can see her squished intestines and the dead fetus.

Her plastinated cadaver is often displayed next to a curtained area, which has 40 embryos and fetuses in jars, ranging in age from a few hours to 28 weeks.

This unnerving sight is perhaps why religious fundamentalists have generally not attacked the show in the US, at least not the way the Christians went after it in Germany.

Viewing those beautiful, plastinated, dead children is enough to sadden even the strongest pro-abortion advocate.

While at the Vancouver Writers Festival afterwards, I ended up in a hotel room with a number of writers, all of us well into our wine, when I made the fatal mistake of mentioning the exhibition.

Before you could drop a wine glass, a sudden, sharp discussion broke out between two good friends, Linda Spalding, a much-admired novelist, noted for her Daughters of Captain Cook, as well as non-fiction books on controversial environmental advocates, and Val Ross, no slouch either — the Globe and Mail’s culture writer, and author of the acclaimed children’s book on censorship: You Can’t Read This.

Linda was appalled at the exhibit. She considered it indecent and shameless, an example of the infection of shallowness creeping through North American culture.

Val defended it for its beauty and its educational role.

I found myself conflicted when I realized they were both right.

This show is a monstrous piece of crass exhibitionism, often in the worst taste. Still, I left it feeling I had undergone a religious experience. It brought to mind Hamlet’s immortal lines:

“What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”

I have seen the beauty of the universe in these corpses and their various parts. And I have also seen a kitsch, splashy exhibition of dead people displayed sometimes in demeaning poses.

All life, mineral, vegetable and animal is magic, and any mistreatment of it is a desecration, a blasphemy against life itself.

Walt Whitman said, in I Sing The Body Electric: “If anything is sacred, the human body is sacred.” Cheap sensationalism gussying up an educational show makes a Disneyworld of the human body.

The display that shocked me into recognizing the horror of this exhibit was of a man completely flayed, holding out his skin. You can see his eyelids in the skinned head, and his hairy butt.

This man may have cheerfully donated his body to what he thought was great science. However, what right does anyone have to turn the dignity of death into a permanent, awful circus?

There’s not enough space here to speak of the bodies from China with possible bullet wounds in their brains, or of the accusations of discarded, mixed body parts from various people heaped together unceremoniously in mass graves or incineration chambers. Tough accusations, and unverified.

Body Worlds evokes more questions than it answers, yet it certainly educated me. How beautiful the human body is, even when diseased and dead, but the products of the human mind are another matter.

 Brian Brett, poet, journalist, novelist, lives on Salt Spring Island and returns to the Yukon whenever he can. His new book of poetry and prose is Uproar’s Your Only Music.