The total effect is engrossing yet somehow never gross. The plastination process preserves the specimens in incredible detail—muscles are discernible down to their individual fibers—yet with enough similarity to plastic that visitors are not afraid to peer closely and at length. To ease the viewer’s uneasiness, von Hagens has assiduously stripped each specimen of its previous owner’s identity. Faces have been removed or sufficiently deconstructed to be indiscernible. (Eerily, the plastination process preserves hair, eyelashes, and even tattoos, reminders that the figures are still individual, if anonymous.)
Anonymity is a legal necessity as much as an aesthetic choice. A cadaver with an identity is a corpse, and a room full of corpses would constitute an illegal cemetery. Von Hagens contends that his specimens fall into the same epistemological category as mummies and classroom skeletons. “Plastinates are not objects of individual memory,” he says. “They are new presentations of former human beings.”
He is also carefully navigating around Article 1 of the German constitution, which expressly states that “the dignity of man is inviolable,” a phrase that has been invoked in German courts to contest everything from pornography to dwarf tossing. German officials permitted Body Worlds to open in Stuttgart only if von Hagens agreed to remove certain undignifying elements—chiefly the basketball and the soccer ball held by the Basketball Player and the Goalkeeper, respectively. (The figures themselves were allowed to remain.)
This isn’t enough to assuage some of von Hagens’s critics. “It’s amazing stuff,” says Michael Sappol, curator and historian at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland. “He’s a great anatomist, technically superb. But most anatomists are in a panic about him.” Prior to the 19th century, anatomic illustrations were playful; a figure might wink at the viewer or stride happily across the page.
With the rise of anatomy as a profession, however, that visual mood was stamped out—in part to reassure the public that anatomists were objective scientists, not lurid, grave-robbing voyeurs. To many of his contemporary colleagues, Sappol says, von Hagens’s offense is twofold: He breaks the dissectors’ “cult of knowledge” by baring everything to the public, and he reintroduces a little emotion to the experience. “We’re shielded from death and dead bodies,” Sappol says. “So this is exciting and a bit naughty.”
Von Hagens in turn insists that the primary purpose of Body Worlds is to educate. Indeed, the exhibition comes with a stultifying amount of medical information. Every specimen large or small is accompanied by a placard, caption, or annotation; a visitor’s head soon swims with descriptions of inguinal ligaments and adipose capsules. The self-promotional description of the show as a Gray’s Anatomy in three dimensions is not far off the mark. The audio guide, read in monotone by von Hagens himself, is dull enough to put the dead to sleep.
And if the specimens on display arrest the eye—if they hold their skins for the visitor to inspect, or if they lean forward and wink one eye, challenging the viewer not to look—well, what’s wrong with that? Von Hagens offers the analogy of a history teacher: Are you more inclined to pay attention and learn something from a vivacious young teacher or from a droning, smelly slob? “We dress up when we present something,” he argues. “So these specimens are dressed up anatomically.”
That might sound like the highbrow rationalization of a circus barker. An hour or two with the crowd at Body Worlds, however, seems to bear him out. One might expect the atmosphere of a freak show; instead, the mood around the specimens is pensive and subdued. To wander among them is an intimate and oddly moving experience, like walking through houses emptied of their inhabitants, or peering into the clothes closets of the recently deceased. The crowd is hushed, engaged in what can only be described as mass introspection: That body is me, is you—except that one is unoccupied while, by some miracle, this one still is.
Von Hagens performs an amazing sleight of hand. By overwhelming the visitor with medical minutiae, he somehow manages to focus attention on the one element of Body Worlds that is omnipresent yet mentioned nowhere in the captions: the spirit, the soul, the delicate, persistent force that animates every human yet is never more apparent than in its absence. “I want to narrow the gap between death and the living,” von Hagens says. In a manner that no words or pictures but only a firsthand encounter can convey, he does.