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Körperwelten Heidelberg kamerascheu | Camera shy body worlds

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Körperwelten shows the bodies of dead people, conserved by the process of plastination, which was invented by Gunther von Hagens, born Gunther Gerhard Liebchen. He also is the mastermind behind the company who is marketing the procedure for various purposes, one important part of them is to show them in various exhibitons under the brand name "Körperwelten" (body worlds). A main characteristic of these exhibitions is to show the corpses in spectacular poses, such as sportsmen, chess players or as a saxophone player.

The principle of plastination is the replacement of water and fat in bodies by plastics, yielding specimens that can be touched, do not smell or decay and retain most microscopic properties of the original sample. A fascinating technique, very useful in the field of anatomy - von Hagens' somewhat freaky use of it bestows him a probably pleasant income.

Accusals against von Hagens, that he had used the bodies of executed prisoners from China could not be proved. In fact, he removed bodies with clear signs of executions from his collection and did not use them for exhibitions.

Thus he tried to regain some reputation, he had lost on the other hand by macabre actions like dancing on a parade float at German Love Parade (a techno music festival...), surrounded by people in "Körperwelten"-Suits, i.e. in the look of the skinless corpses of his exhibitions. Other actions, like the planning to sell anatomical specimens to private customers, as it was announced in early 2008, were withdrawn swiftly. But who knows, whether they were meant seriously or were just another advertisment strategy to gain some publicity for the exhibition business.

Plastination is an interesting concept,after all, and after I missed the first big exhibition some years ago at Mannheim, I actually intended to visit the current Körperwelten (Body Worlds) exhibition, shown from January until April 2009 in Heidelberg, to write a few words here in the blog and especially to illustrate it with some photos.

Gunther von Hagens’ approach of using the corpses of dead people to arrange hokey arrangements is highly controversial. But anyway – I would have preferred to make me my own picture. “Making a picture” in the strict sense of the word, because taking photographs is one part of my daily work and I consider it to add some aspects, which are not easily expressed by words.

Unfortunately, the organizers of the show are extremely restrictive in assigning photo accreditations - and so denied one to me, although I am a registered journalist. I stopped short, considering what’s the reason behind this refusal, but of course it is  blatantly obvious: hands on the images of the exhibiton is an extremely important marketing issue, the manipulation with images in one direction or the other is an crucial issue in a context, where images transport most of the information and image of Körperwelten to the public.

Don't let me be misunderstood. I strongly back the organizers, to prevent people to use flash lights and mobile phone cameras in the exhibition to take macabre snapshots (although I am sure, they can't prevent people from taking pictures with that kind of equipment...).

Although the organizers of Körperwelten don’t have any fear of creating more or less tasteful arrangements of cadavers and to publish images of these works, the control over the images is an essential part of the staging, just as von Hagens appearance, allegorizing himself as an artist (with a somewhat ridiculous copying of famous German artist Joseph Beuys' appearance).

An independent look, a view that might  differ from the officially published, obviously has to be avoided like the plague. It tells us something about the aplomb of Körperwelten's organizers. So much for critical reporting.

Besides the questionable staging of the spectacle by the organizers, the individual impetus for donating one's body to Körperwelten is another interesting point: Perhaps it is just the dream of some people to grasp their little part of fame. Even after death. – although it might be not much more than prettifying the look of the town on an advertising poster between parking bicycles...

Anyway - unfortunately no photo essay about Körperwelten, in fact only some reflections about the exhibition. What do you think about body worlds / Körperwelten?

6 Gedanken zu „Körperwelten Heidelberg kamerascheu | Camera shy body worlds

  1. Frank

    It's an extremely sensitive matter. Von Hagens knows, that he would get a lot of problems, if someone could prove, that he used the bodies of convicts. Actually, he has a lot of volunteers, who are eager to present themselves after death the public. So, there's seems no need for corpses of unknow origin.

  2. Keith

    I'm a donor to the IFP, one of the 900-plus Americans who have pledged their bodies for plastination after death. As long as the plastinated remains are from the pool of registered body donors, then there should be no objection on ethical grounds.

    Hopefully, I will live a long, and healthy, life, but, death inevitably comes to everyone -- for me, it would be an honor to join the inventory of plastinates in a traveling exhibition, or permanent museum.

    The whole purpose of my donation is to inspire others to donate their bodies to medical schools, research tissue banks and transplantation. It's time that we leave superstitions about the body behind, and make use of our bodies for educational and humanitarian reasons.

  3. Frank

    It is everybody's own decision. However, I tend to disagree about the question whether there is no objection on ethical grounds. There is no legal objection but one could - and many people do it - see the exhibition as an unethical way to show the corpses.

    I agree with you, that plastination is useful for medicine and anatomy (hic gaudet mors succurrere vitae), but this doesn't have to0 much to do with the spectacular shows. It might be a charming alternative to be eaten by worms, but to end up one day in a dusty cellar, when the exhibition is not hip anymore, seems hardly to be an option ;-)

  4. Keith

    Frank, instead of collecting dust in a cellar, why not incinerate the plastinates after use, as US medical schools are doing with plastinated remains?

    The ashes could be scattered, disposed of as medical waste, or buried in a communal grave -- just as medical school cadavers.

    As for "spectacular" shows of Body Worlds, if the plastination exhibits are designed in a way that inspires people to donate organs and whole bodies to medical science, then being eaten by worms is not charming, but a "dead end".

    Traditional earth burial does not allow the donor to keep participating in the human experience, or to extend the lives of other people. Plus, it takes up precious land space, against ecological conservation.

    So, what's the choice, a secular, medical disposition (plastination for exhibits or medical schools or organ and body donation)? Or should we still harbor irrational fears and superstitions about the body, and practice medieval burial practices?

    Certainly, I agree, plastination will not be "hip" someday, but more commonly accepted in natural history museums, in addition to anatomical and medical displays.

    Predictably, someday egomaniacs will be preserved in a Lenin-style tomb with plstination, and that market remains untapped for the funeral industry n the United States. In this declining global economy, expect the trends towards whole body donation and cremation to accelerate.

    Thus, plastination is not a passing fad, but an new, emerging technology that changes everything, and remains in its infancy.

  5. Frank

    Keith, my rational side has to agree with you. From a secular point of view, the remaining body after death is not more than a mortal coil. I guess, my secularisation isn't complete enough to have lost all of my reverence towards death.

    However, I can't follow all of your arguments. First, I doubt the argument, that a lot of people will be inspired to be organ donors. A campaign with living people, who live because they received organs would be probably much more effective.

    The ecological argument doesn't strike IMHO. Besides the fact, that modern corpses in our western civilisations might be filled up with cemicals, the vast majority of dead people will decompose in a few years. This is probably more ecological than the remains of plastination, which seems to be filled with chemicals...

    The trend to "Lenin-style" tombs might be a future trend, especially in the US, with it's tradition of "open coffins" (I don't know, if it is the right term - and my knowledge about that, might be influenced by "Six feet under") - which is very unusual in Germany these days.

    There is a trend towards cardboard cuffins, too...

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