Between the body and the world

  • 'The Skin Man' plastinate by Gunther von Hagens

    Courtesy Institute for Plastination -
  • 'The Yoga Lady' plastinate by Gunther von Hagens

    Courtesy Institute for Plastination -

I had to see it. I mean, how often are human bodies impregnated with resin and polyester, contorted into odd postures, and displayed for the public’s edification? It wasn’t appealing; it was irresistible. So one evening this spring, I plunked down $15 and joined the line for Body Worlds 2 at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

What a line it was. Since the traveling exhibit opened in Denver in March, more than a quarter-million people have come to gape and ponder, joining an estimated 18 million who showed up at previous Body Worlds exhibits around the world.

So I expected a good show, and I wasn’t disappointed. Body Worlds creator Gunther von Hagens, a medical doctor who grew up in East Germany, has developed a process he calls "plastination," which uses various polymers to preserve human tissue in all-but-lifelike detail. Von Hagens, now a visiting professor at New York University, selectively peels away layers of skin and fat and muscle, posing his subjects to display different aspects of their anatomical machinery.

There is a Soccer Player, frozen in an exhausting-looking kick, his muscles tensed. The Man at Leisure — who, I thought, drew a far better fate than his neighbor — displays the nervous system. The Skier, caught in mid-jump, is split down the middle, revealing the guts underlying his glory. Everywhere, kids asked questions of their parents ("Is that a real brain, Mom?"), couples poked each other’s bellies and reminisced about gallstones or appendectomies, and teenagers both sniggered and stood awed. One display case holds the lung of a miner with black lung disease — the organ as black and luminous as a piece of coal itself — juxtaposed with the lung of a heavy smoker, almost equally choked with darkness. The knot of young men near me considered the sight in silence, finally pronouncing it Really Gnarly.

In front of a selection of plastinated body cross-sections, a father told his young daughter, "They slice you like this," drawing a gentle finger across the back of her pink windbreaker. She nodded, seeming more fascinated than frightened. Before a preserved slice of an obese man, whose innards demonstrate how excess fat grotesquely enlarges the heart, a small, dark-haired girl gleefully punched her younger brother: "See? That’s what happens when you eat a french fry!" Message received.

Even as it educates, Body Worlds invites controversy. When similar — but unrelated — exhibits of human cadavers were accused of using execution victims in their displays, von Hagens stoutly defended himself against such charges, producing evidence that the bodies in the Body Worlds exhibits are those of voluntary donors.

But beyond the immediate questions of when and how these bodies were acquired are the more difficult ones of what and why. What exactly are we looking at, anyway? This exhibit may be just an assemblage of flesh, willed by its donors to inform and enlighten. Or the displays could be not-quite-empty vessels, bodies still clutching pieces of their souls. Either way, why in tarnation are we all here, children in tow, peering at anonymous toes and skulls and lungs and genitals? The line between observation and exploitation, education and corruption, is awfully uncertain at Body Worlds. Perhaps we line up, day after day, to learn which side we fall on.

There’s another question that arises here: Where? Despite all their Sisyphean sporting activities, these bodies seem to live apart from the world, on adrenaline and adulation. No one is farming, or hunting, or even eating and drinking; the land and water and plants and creatures this crowd once depended on have left the scene. The bodies instead inhabit some otherworldly version of an attorney’s office, surrounded by dark walls, a scattering of artificial potted trees, and some polygons of white gravel. In these rooms, the who is everywhere; the where is nowhere.

Between the pancreas and the large intestine, I remembered: The where is stashed across the hall, in a completely separate exhibit called Explore Colorado. Its humble single room is lined with dioramas of Rocky Mountain habitats, featuring illustrative shrubbery, stuffed birds, and plastic press-for-the-answer buttons at kid level. ("What color is a scrub jay? Are you sure?") Set against the creepy glamour nearby, Explore Colorado just can’t compete; while waiting for the line to form for Body Worlds, my fellow cadaver-gawkers and I had sat amid the dioramas and checked our cell-phone messages.

Only as I wandered out of Explore Colorado, bound for Body Worlds, had I noticed the fiberglass relief map of the state. I’d paused to find the valley where I live, tracing the blue line of the Gunnison River and the green bands suggesting sagebrush, piñon, and aspen. There lie the mountains that hold our water, the juniper stands that make me sneeze. The where is there.

Finished with my tour of Body Worlds, my mind’s eye still flooded with sculptured flesh and bone, I left the museum and stumbled out into the long evening light. In the grassy park outside, an enthusiastic pickup baseball game was underway, its sweaty players oblivious to the show inside. Moving bodies kicked up dirt, sucked in air, and assumed joyful, fluid poses The Skier could only dream of. I inhaled, thinking of my living lungs, their place on the map, and our insistence on the imaginary divide between.

The author is HCN’s contributing editor.

More information on Body Worlds is located at