The entire esthetic of Dr. Gunther von Hagens' provocative anatomical exhibit, Body Worlds: The Original Exhibition of Real Human Bodies, currently on display at the Milwaukee Public Museum stems from the controversial notion that human bodies are both pliable slabs of meat and harmonious, beautiful machines worth displaying in gory detail.
The exhibit seeks to illuminate people's understanding of the intricacies of the human body, and is, therefore, morbidly educational -- an ossuary of sorts composed of very real corpses of both sexes, flayed of their flesh, intricately dissected and dynamically posed to stimulate an emotional response from curious visitors interested in viscera.
It is a modern-day Theatre du Grand-Guignol, presenting the vulnerable fragility and grotesque beauty of the human form in all its glory. Imagine the anatomical studies of Leonardo da Vinci as envisioned by Clive Barker.
Every cadaver on display has been dissected and preserved through a process called plastination, wherein the structural elements of each specimen are dehydrated then saturated with reactive polymers like silicone-rubber before finally being cured.
The resulting "plastinates" are anatomical works of art, sculptures that court controversy wherever they go and willfully straddle the line between exploitation and good taste.
"The Basketball Player," pictured on most of the event's advertisements, dribbles a Spalding Milwaukee Bucks basketball.
"The Jumping Dancer" appears suspended in mid-air, because it rests on its brain and spinal cord, which have been peeled down from its back.
The exhibit's most eye-catching display, "The Rearing Horse with Rider," is an imposing figure of flesh, a macabre and breathtaking comparison of human and horse anatomies.
Renaissance artists often depicted dissected bodies in life-like poses. By quite literally using human corpses as both the canvas and the inspiration for anatomical study, Hagens has created an exhibit that simultaneously plays to our curiosity with and repulsion from death.
Some may question the importance of showcasing real cadavers at all, especially because the plastination process gives everything an almost plastic sheen. This unintended effect no doubt allows potentially squeamish viewers to disconnect themselves from the reality of what they are seeing, but it nevertheless begs the question, "Why not simply use three-dimensional re-creations of real cadavers?"
Museum president and CEO Dan Finley suggests this lack of life in the immaculately preserved specimens proves the existence of a soul and stresses, "This is the most important exhibit the Milwaukee Public Museum has ever hosted."
My own personal reaction to the exhibit was one of surprise. I was struck by how fake the real human bodies appeared. Real blood makes me queasy -- I momentarily passed out the last time I had my blood drawn.
One would think standing in a room surrounded by dead bodies -- pulled apart and cross-sectioned in minute detail -- would have prompted a similar response, but it didn't. My mind tricked me into thinking that each display was simply a plastic model masquerading as the real thing. Obviously, years of watching horror films have caused me to create my own expectations when it comes to what I think human insides are supposed to look like on the outside. Even though what I saw was indeed real, I found it strange that none of the displays appeared to look any more realistic than the blood-soaked special effects work of craftsmen like Tom Savini or Rick Baker.
Body Worlds at the Milwaukee Public Museum is scheduled to run through June 1. Though tickets to the event may be purchased at the box office, patrons are strongly encouraged to make reservations either by phone (414-223-4676) or online.