A 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.
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.