They say that art imitates life, but the Body Worlds exhibition currently being staged in Kaohsiung is a rare example of death imitating life -- and possibly art.
For example, a skinless corpse dives across artificial turf to "make a save." A skier is cut in two and is posed as if it is leaping off an imaginary piste, hanging in the air. The muscles, ligaments and organs of the body are fully exposed. A chess player contemplates his next move. A woman's womb is exposed to show a plastinated fetus.
Body Worlds: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies (
The exhibition is the brainchild of Gunther von Hagens, a German professor, who was once imprisoned by the former East German authorities for supporting democracy. He worked in a hospital as an elevator operator and assistant pharmacist as a 17-year-old, when he sneaked into a public autopsy and was inspired to become an anatomist.
After training, he discovered a process that he called plastination, in which the body's fluids are replaced by polymers. The result is a corpse that is preserved indefinitely and can be manipulated and exposed to show the various parts of the body.
In Germany, his exhibition caused enormous controversy, mainly stirred up by church leaders who complained that he was desecrating the dead. The colorful showman -- who wears what he calls a Tulp hat, from a picture by Rembrandt van Rijn called The Anatomy Lesson and is happy to pose with his plastinated subjects -- was then criticized by the media for transforming corpses into art objects.
They questioned how his work was different from, say, Damian Hirst's cows dunked in formaldehyde. Or Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who became famous for making portraits of heads composed of a variety of objects, both natural and man-made.
It is a question that keeps cropping up and to which Von Hagens has a suite of arguments to counter. "Nature has its own beauty, and of course there is the term `natural art,' which is about how beautiful nature or the body is. But this question depends on whether I view myself as an artist or whether others see me as an artist. Many people look at this as art because it is done well, but this is a change in the perception of the word of art, so actually you know the answer to this. I am not an artist, I am a scientist.
"Before art was seen as a form of craftsmanship, but art has lost its credentials. It has been degra-ded and it has lost its reputation with the masses who cannot follow the concept of abstract art. Art has been [co-opted] by those who do it and write about it."
Von Hagens said he accepted, however, that there was an aesthetic dimension to what he did. This was the result, he said, of his first exhibition in Japan, at which the specimens were simply laid out.
His wife and business partner Dr. Angelina Whalley said, "Before we did not care for the pose, or the artistic aspect. When we opened in Japan, people felt a little sorry for the bodies, because they looked more like puppets than human beings. This is why we changed things a bit ... We realized that it was important to attract people's attention and overcome people's fear of the dead. The point is that our bodies are not like corpses. "