Speechless @ Body Worlds

December 27, 2006

Pentel Portrait of Plastinated Foetus

As I stood there frozen in one spot, sketchbook in one hand, wearing my blue museum temporary pass for artists, only my hand and eyes moving rapidly back and forth across the page to the miniature hands, feet, eyelashes before me, I felt like time stopped. I could hear words around me and feel the presence of others but I was intensely focussed.

It was not what I had expected. I heard voices speak of someone they knew who was born prematurely. They guessed at the number of weeks so they could make comparisons. There might have been thirty people, maybe as many as sixty people who passed by during the 90 minutes I spent in that small room with those six glass cases. I heard in their comments what I was thinking and feeling as I drew. Not a single one made an inappropriate comment, not a single joke or smart remark. There was no fear, disgust or disrespect.

I have felt this in front of moving works of art by Rubens, Rembrandt, Jordaens, Escher, Akpaliapik. I have never experienced this in a museum like this before. Where is this situated in terms of museology? or in terms of the Exhibition of Cultures? Science and art have come together here to create a new knowledge system.

There are moments that artists experience while drawing from life, even still life. A detail reveals itself as if it was not there a moment ago. It’s just the way the eye automatically eliminates ‘noise’, the confusion of details that prevent us from seeing the whatness of things. But when you take 30 minutes, an hour, three hours to draw one thing, those hidden details become unforgettable. Suddenly I could see — with complete clarity — fingernails, the balls of the toes, wrinkles like a faint pencil mark creating baby frowns . . . I could imagine the shape of the womb.

I asked myself if the mother or child grieved to see us before this portrayal. No, it was more like a skillfully carved sculpture than an irreverent glance. It was after all created by the hand of God, before it was prepared for this place by scientists, technicians, artists and inventors. I actually silently prayed to see if there was any disrespect in the process of creating or exhibiting these forms. I wanted to feel the presence of a lost soul if there was any. The only souls I felt were living and like me, they were in awe.

Science World, Vancouver, British Columbia where I visited the exhibit and the Institute of Plastination, Heidelberg, Germany where inventor/artist Gunther Von Hagens has his headquarters, require that all artists wear a special pass while drawing in the exhibition space and that they send a copy to them within two weeks of the museum visit. This is the first of four drawings that I will be uploading to fulfill that requirement. The original sketches were done in a sketchbook c. 10″ x 6.5″ using a 0.5mm Pentel P205 pencil. I completed four drawings in c. 2 – 2 1/2 hours.

For more information on Body Worlds 1, 2 and/or 3 and the inventor/artist Gunther Von Hagens (b. 1945) see below:

Von Hagens, Gunther. Body Worlds http://www.bodyworlds.com/en/pages/home.asp

Body Worlds 3 http://www.scienceworld.bc.ca/whats_on/Body-Worlds/overview.htm

3 Responses to “Speechless @ Body Worlds”

  1. Theresa Says:

    I go to the Kansas City Art Institute and the workshop that I am currently taking is called Subcutaneous World, where we investigate the underlying structures beneath the exterior of certain visual objects. The Bodies Revealed Exhibit is at Union Station and the main idea behind the workshop in the first place was to go to the exhibit and draw from the plastinated bodies. The first time that we went I could not fully understand the emotions and thoughts that passed through my mind…. This particular exhibit is the one with the most controversy surrounding it; all the bodies are from China. Upon going there our instructor showed us the Body Worlds exhibit film (the exhibit run by the man who’d founded the process), and I was expecting the carefully treated, well respected bodies that, that particular show had in their video. The shock I had was that there was no tour guide, not even an introductory talk about how the bodies have been obtained, or even just to make sure that the younger audience knew that the bodies were real people and that respect was due to them. While drawing, I was shocked at the amount of rude comments about the bodies by the younger people at the exhibit…then once having been through the whole exhibit the manner in which the bodies were plastinated was absolutely shocking…there was actually most on a piece of a cross-sectioned body!! While I learned a lot about the internal structures, I could not get it out of my head that these people were–just that living breathing people! I still cannot put into words exactly my reaction, but I could not bring myself to go back to the exhibit. I am actually doing a piece that juxtaposes a portrait of a living Chinese woman and the same figure in the same pose but plastinated in an American museum setting…I just cannot believe that lack of information that the young people that see this are getting to make sure that they respect the dead that are presented…sorry to go on so but I think I’m telling myself information just by writing it out.

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience which contrasts so sharply with my own. I must admit that I did a lot of internet reading before going to the exhibit since I was at first repulsed by the concept. A teacher I knew planned on taking his class and it had caused a lot of debate so I read as much as I could about the controversy. I am really committed to better understanding complex relationships between religion, science, art and ethics.

    I wasn’t sure what to expect before visiting the exhibition but I was favourably surprised by public reaction in Vancouver, BC. Your experience sounds deeply unsettling. Thanks again for taking the time to write so openly and with such honesty and frankness.

  3. DoTheRightThing Says:

    Theresa makes important points. We do not know the provenance of those young bodies in amazingly good shape. Physicians who have seen the exhibit believe it is unlikely that these people-turned-into-musem-objects died from natural causes or from disease. That these bodies may indeed be those of executed Chinese prisoners makes one not want to donate one’s money to that cause.

    As to being required to give Body Worlds a copy of your art, this is absurd. We do not live in a gulag.

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