plastic people

ArtistejenlucA month or so ago, I wrote a post about the difference (if any) between scientific visualization and science-inspired art, particularly as the former becomes sufficiently sophisticated that the lines really do start to blur. It generated some excellent discussion, although ultimately it comes down to how one chooses to define "art." I mean, lots of things can be aesthetically pleasing on the merits, including natural formations; that doesn’t necessarily qualify them as "art" — otherwise, galleries all over the world could just point to a random patch of meadow or the white cliffs of Dover and call it "art." (We’ve already seen certain self-styled "artists" come awfully close to that level of dis-ingenuousness in their shows. Who’s that guy who displayed dissected cow parts preserved in formaldehyde in jars — Damien Hirst? — and claimed he was making some deep artistic statement? Jen-Luc Piquant calls shenanigans!)

So beauty is very much in the eyes of the beholder. I was reminded of this when one commenter mentioned the work of Gunther von Hagens, the mastermind behind the Body Worlds series of exhibits that have been touring science museums around the country for several years now. The Spousal Unit and I took in Body Worlds 4 at the Los Angeles Science Museum a couple of weeks ago. We’ve been living here almost two years, yet this was the first time we’d explored the science museum, despite the fact that it is literally a 10-minute drive away. (Were LA more pedestrian-friendly, we could have walked there, were we feeling energetic.) Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows I have a morbid streak a mile wide. I’ve written about forensics, bugs, poisons, physics-based techniques for sorting sperm, mummies, zombies, and yes — lovely, lovely corpses. So von Hagens’ creations are right up my alley. I found the exhibit positively enthralling.

On the off-chance that there are still folks out there unfamiliar with von Hagens’ work, he pioneered a method for preserving corpses called plastination back in the 1970s. It’s a time-honored, human endeavor, figuring out how to beat back the ravages of decomposition after death, so von Hagens has a lot of ancestors throughout the ages. In essence, when we die, our cells release enzymes to trigger the process of breaking down all that bone and tissue — ashes to ashes, dust to dust — with the help of bacteria and other micro-organisms, not to mention insects and so forth. Mother Nature is thrifty that way.

The best way to offset decomposition is to get rid of all the water and fats that those hungry micro-organisms need in order to thrive. The Egyptians did this via mummification (removing the bodily fluids and wrapping the remainder in linens), although before they developed that technique, the body wold be laid out in the desert in a shallow pit so that the sun could dehydrate the body. Around 1896, scientists discovered formalin, followed soon after by color preserving embalming solutions so folks could be assured of leaving a reasonably good-looking corpse — or at least one with decent coloring. By 1925, paraffin was commonly injected into organs and tissues to preserve them, and (much later) cryopreservation (cooling the body to very low temperatures to stop decay). In between, in 18th century France, there was Honore Fragonard, director of one of the world’s oldest veterinary schools. Fragonard had trained to be a surgeon, and had a longstanding fascination with anatomy and preservation. Tmp66

Back then, anatomists used to soak body parts in alcohol, mixed with pepper and herbs; apparently Fragonard had his own secret recipe for this, but if so, he took it with him to the grave. But it’s obvious what he did to his corpses after that initial phase: he injected the veins, bronchial tubes and arteries with wax or tallow mixed with turpentine, then stretched them on a frame into the desired position and left them to dry. Your average anatomist would have just laid out the bodies in some conventional funereal pose, but Fragonard clearly had a sense of whimsy. He arranged his flayed and preserved bodies into intricate tableaux, or ecorches, and these are the highlight of the Fragonard Museum, located in the tiny town of Maisons-Alfort, just outside of Paris.

The museum houses all kinds of monstrous medical specimens: a pale blue horse fetus, for example, or an actual Cyclops (a colt with a malformed facial bone and one enormous eye). There are Siamese twins, sheep with 10 legs, and a host of skeletons of exotic animals: ostriches, camels, and lions, among others. For Fragonard, however, bodies were his raw materials, and he really blurred the boundary between science and art — pushing the limits of aesthetics to the limit in the process. The museum is not for the faint of heart. A 1996 article in The New York Times reported that the museum displays a hand-lettered sign at the entrance: "Unfortunately we have too few visitors. If you enjoy the museum, why not send us your friends — if not your enemies."

If anyone can be said to be the modern heir apparent to Fragonard, it is Gunther von Hagens. In 1978, he applied for his first US patent for a technique for preserving tissue permanently by "synthetic resin impregnation." That is, he replaces the water and lipid tissues of the body with curable polymers (plastics), hence the term plastination. He founded the Institute of Plastination in Germany in 1993 after perfecting his technique, and over the last 20 years has plastinated several hundred donated bodies.

First, the donated body is embalmed with formaldehyde and dissected to whatever degree is desired. Then the water and fatty tissues are replaced with the solvent acetone, which in turn is replaced with a liquid plastic (usually silicone rubber for the posed bodies, since it cures when exposed to a special gas). The challenge is to make sure the plastic gets into every single cell. The secret is placing the specimen in a vacuum chamber, reducing the pressure to the point where the acetone literally boils and vaporizes. The vapor is sucked out of the tissue, and the liquid plastic rushes in to fill the void. Apparently it’s a very time-consuming process: doing this to entire bodies takes weeks. Then the bodies are posed with needles, wires, and foam rubber holding various muscles and nerves and limbs in place as need be. The film depicting this part of the process was even eerier than the final pieces, because the bodies look just like flayed marionettes. Once posed, the plastic is cured (with gas, UV light, or heat), and it hardens, solidifying the body into the final position.


The end result not only perfectly preserves the corpses, but even retains most of the microscopic properties of the original form. Tendons, ligaments, fine details of the bone and sinew — all of these are perfectly preserved, looking more like an exquisitely rendered plastic model than an actual preserved human body. The genius of the exhibit is how von Hagens exploits that life-like quality: the bodies are displayed in various athletic poses (see basketball player, below), revealing how all the bones and muscles and tendons and such interact to produce movement. In some cases, the preserved bodies are shown with prosthetics still intact: artificial hip joints, for instance, or metal pins. And the same hints of whimsy can be seen here, as with Fragonard: bodies are shown playing poker, for example, in an earlier incarnation of Body Worlds, and both Fragonard and von Hagens feature a horse and rider.


In between the full-sized tableaux are display cases featuring individual organs, or slices of tissue: a liver with and without cirrhosis, for example, or the lungs of a smoker displayed side by side with a non-smoker. This being southern California, the exhibit got a bit preachy at such times: there was a special canister for smokers to toss out their cigarettes after viewing that icky, tar-infested lung tissue, for instance, and another display showing a preserved, morbidly obese body (or parts thereof) was accompanied by signage primly lecturing attendees on the need to maintain proper diet and exercise.

Now, I’m all for maintaining a healthy weight via good diet and exercise, but really — give me a break. Do we really need to turn an anatomy lesson into high school nutrition class? Personally, what that obese specimen revealed to me was that in death, with all the excess fatty tissue stripped away, we are all just pretty much bones and tendons and muscle. At that level, we really do all look alike: the universal human form.

20 thoughts on “plastic people”

  1. I am a Muslim physicist and visit this blog the first time,
    because I read that you criticized a man for writing that
    a lady physicist looks attractive. I am deeply disappointed
    to see that you have a picture of yourself on your left upper
    corner of your blog that is not ladylike at all. My husband
    had the same reaction about that picture. I know that many
    western women have manners that are not appropriate in
    our Muslim countries – but how can a woman criticize men if
    she does not behave properly herself?

  2. ‘Do we really need to turn an anatomy lesson into high school nutrition class?’
    Am I upset with black lung tissue? Not at all. Third of adult population smokes, so there is nothing strange that some of the bodies on exibition had black lungs. Why did that upset You, I wonder?
    I’ve seen body works, and something else bothered me. Author’s intention to not only educate and be ‘artistic’, but also to impress with some very, in a way, violent and desecrated bodies.
    Now this sounds funny, ‘desecrated’ when all the bodies are sliced and diced, but yes, there were few that upset me, like for example this one:

  3. Wah wah wah, shut the fuck up. I’m sorry but a corpse is just a corpse. I don’t see any particular postions that a body, or pieces of a body could be in that I would find offensive. The piece in that link was eerily beautiful and I commend the artful posing. Hagen succeeded in duplicating the style of HR Giger using real flesh. Kudos I say. This is a science blog. There isn’t room for religious prudishness, and the suffering of prigs. Well maybe there is. A little disagreement does make things more interesting.

  4. Well I dont know but one the one hand these pictures are fascinating me and one the other hand they are creepy for me. Dont miss understand this, I find your blog very good.

  5. I see that you did not answer my question, and instead you want me not visit. That western men might be hypocrites I understand, but that a western woman who wants to be an example to others and who criticises others for being hypocrites is a great pity.

  6. Wow! I thought Muslim women weren’t supposed to have jobs or be educated or anything. Thanks for clearing up that unfortunate stereotype that Muslims really do repress women and keep them in their place, all covered up.
    … oh wait a sec …
    Instead of judging a woman’s accomplishments by her accomplishments, you choose to say, what a bad example you are, letting sunshine warm your shoulders, shaking hands with men (GASP), having a picture on your blog where your collar bones show. Instead of girl solidarity, “wow, I really understand how you feel, being in such a male dominated profession, when I’m in a male dominated culture and profession” you take the “You look like a hussy, if you get discriminated against its your own fault” route. Cover up and then you’ll have street cred.
    “but how can a woman criticize men if she does not behave properly herself?” Because a man doesn’t have the right to tell me what to do on the basis of my being a woman. Because I can wear a tank top in the sunshine and have the right not to be harassed. Because proper behavior is living an ethical, autonomous life.
    I take great offense at the idea that if anything bad happens to a woman, she deserved it. Well, how can you say men are jerks when you obviously were asking for it? Women should lessen their rights so men don’t have excuses to harass them? Is that really what you’re saying? Oh, well men can’t help but be pigs, so don’t give them any encouragement.
    I understand you choose to be Muslim. I would never make that choice for myself, but if that’s what you want to do, that’s fine with me. You are an autonomous being and I respect that. But I draw the line at personal attacks against people I respect. Especially when they work toward the furthering of women in general and science in particular. I’ve been judged on my looks my entire life, and I love that it’s ok for me to be beautiful and smart. That I don’t have to ugly myself up just to be accepted either academically or professionally. And I have the right to be beautiful and respected and autonomous and safe and successful. And so does every other woman on earth.
    And thank you Jennifer for your awesome blog. I just love it.

  7. Alina, it was pretty clear you didnt have a question, and were merely looking for an excuse to call me a hypocrite — which I find ironic, since you only came here because you “heard” about “something” i’d written. What I said was, if you are offended by what is on this site, you have the prerogative to not visit. You have the right to visit as well, although I’m giving you fair warning that the next time you hijack an otherwise respectable comment thread, you run the risk of deletion…
    My comments policy is outlined under the “ABOUT” tab in the sidebar. Right under to the shockingly risque picture in which I reveal I have a neck and collarbones…

  8. LOL – Alina, instead of trying to defend you male dominated religious based, sexist, oppressive sensitivities; try thinking about what it would be like to enjoy a judgment free life; or better, that your daughter’s might enjoy equality. Moreover, you are embarrassing me as a veteran and a woman who regularly shows my neck line; go away~!
    Anyway, I was lucky enough to see this exhibit in GA, USA; in a science museum. I found it remarkable; to see and visualize the internal human body in such great, clean and unsmelly circumstances was a fantastic experience. I was able to see the horse and man as well as the basketball player you picture here; among the twenty or so body’s they had (including a drapery protected, warning signed enclosure of a woman in late gestation) It was odd as to the sensibilities of wondering about the persons depicted; but it was done in such a fantastic manner that they still were dignified in their well preserved stature and unlike most of us; have the distinct honor of appearing life like for a long, long time. I would check it out again if ever given the opportunity. Also, on the way out of the museum, they had a full description of how they get donor’s and how to go about signing up to be a donor as well as biographies of some of the donor’s and why they chose to allow their body to be used for this science/art. It was amazing.

  9. De-lurking to say: Great post! I visited the NY Bodies Exhibit a couple of years ago, and was similarly enthralled. I particularly liked the part where all of the body’s blood vessels are preserved. To realise just how many metres of arteries and veins are in one’s body is just staggering! It was fascinating to see the human body’s components in such a way. And as far as the cigarette bin by the black lung tissue, I believe that may be the way all of the Body Worlds exhibits are set up. I remember there being one in NY.
    And Alina, that was just rude. Some Muslim manners may not be seen as appropriate in Western countries! You shouldn’t judge people based on your cultural or religious mores, especially if that person is not of the same background as you. Better yet, don’t judge people at all.

  10. Jennifer, by your policy (5) comment number 3 should be deleted, or I may be tempted to respond to that kid for challenging my right to have an opinion.

  11. You’re right that comment should be deleted. It was tasteless and inflammatory. どうま失礼。You are of course entitled to your opinion. I am sometimes too easily off put by those of fairer sensibilities. Beg pardon.

  12. I seem to remember either this exhibit or one similar to it being shut down due to … shall we say “suspicious provenance” of the “donated” bodies in the exhibit … apparently some of the bodies were identified by dental records and other forms of ID as being political dissidents or prisoners from North Korea (unfortunately, I cannot find the article I read this in, so if anyone can confirm, it would be appreciated)

  13. Well, good thing I included that bit in my comments policy about it being a personal judgment call. I admit Michael was a bit gratuitious with his opening, but he went on to make a valid point, ergo, I let the comment stand. And I trust my regular commenters to show good judgment and maturity not to let themselves be baited by him. 🙂

  14. If Alina is indeed a female physicist she would likely be much more interested in the scientific merit of this blog than she is shaming the author for her behavior. I think the “Alina” post was written by a man, based on my opinion that a Muslim woman who felt so strongly about her place in the world versus a man’s place would not likely have been given the opportunity to become so educated.
    But that’s just my opinion.
    Love von Hagens’ work. Thanks for sharing it!

  15. I have always found Body Worlds interesting, certainly interesting. I have never found it artistic, however. I love perusing the work, but for me it’s an exposition, not an art show.

  16. Oh yeah, Gumby, it’s great. I absolutely love looking at it all. I guess I was just expressing that loving looking at something doesn’t leave me with that fresh, just-looked-at-great-art feeling. It’s more like that contented, just-pored-over-a-great-educational-tome feeling. The basketball pose and the weird organs splodin’ out the back look is just a kind of a distraction for me.
    I recognize that reasonable minds can disagree on this. Oh, and why can’t you pore over a cheap paperback, anyway? “Tome” sort of has to follow “pore”, doesn’t it?

  17. Carolina Camargo

    I’m not a physicist or artist, I’m a brazilian student (I stopped in my 3rd year of Biology) and I liked your blog a lot. I love the way you write, even though I can’t understand everything. Here in Brazil, mostly of the things I heard about it was “OMG that’s such a violation of the human body”, “that’s not art, it’s a horror show” blah blah blah Oh, I also heard some people saying that Von Hagen models were homeless people corpses… I haven’t seen the exhbition, but I think it’s interesting, for the pictures I’ve seen, but I don’t think it’s art. Actually what I wanted to say is that it’s so crazy that we have so many different cultures in the world, diferent governments, different laws… But people are always the same (I’m generalizing here). If we compare the thoughts of several people of different nacionalities, I’m pretty sure we would get similar opinions and critics. Ps. Sorry about my English.

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