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MAY 10, 2009 11:26AM

Sex after death: The new "Body Worlds" exhibit shocks Berlin

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  Gunther von Hagens and

WOODY ALLEN ONCE QUIPPED to Newsweek in 1975, “The difference between sex and death is that with death you can do it alone and no one is going to make fun of you.” Back then he might have been right, but today neither sex nor death can guarantee you privacy.

Gunther von Hagens has seen to that. Once again, the famous – and infamous – German anatomist with the pale face and the black fedora has practically written his own headlines with a new “Body Worlds” exhibition in Berlin featuring two “plastinated” male and female corpses engaged in sexual intercourse. Ever since von Hagens’s first display of preserved human bodies opened in Mannheim in 1997, protests have been part of the show. It has been banned in Paris and Poland, and has attracted lawsuits virtually everywhere it has gone. In fact, von Hagens’s fame is due just as much to the attacks launched against him by religious authorities and human rights groups as to the eery fascination of his transparent cadavers in lifelike positions. So far some thirty million visitors have viewed his work in over fifty cities worldwide.  But just who is this "Dr. Death" and what drives him to bring dead people back to "life"?

The son of an SS soldier, Gunther von Hagens was born as Gunther Liebchen in the waning days of the Third Reich in the town of Alt-Skalden in a region of modern-day Poland formerly called the Reichsland Warthegau. As the Soviet Army advanced on Gunther’s home town, his mother snatched up her five-day-old baby and fled with him to eastern Germany, where he grew up and attended school. As a medical student in Jena, the future plastinator fell out with the communist regime and protested the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. After two escape attempts to the West, von Hagens spent two years in an East German prison before being bought out by the Federal Republic. He continued his medical studies in the West (where he adopted the aristocratic surname von Hagens from his first wife) and pioneered the process of plastination. This is a method whereby human body parts, and even entire corpses, are preserved by replacing the water and fat found in human tissue with plastics. These substances include silicone, epoxy and polyester-copolymer. After hardening, the prepared bodies are not only preserved from deterioration but can also be positioned in lifelike poses. By peeling away the skin and several layers of body tissue, plastination allows viewers to penetrate deep into the secrets of human life – and death.

Body Worlds

Von Hagens’s original intention was to prepare exhibits for anatomy teaching, but he soon had bigger plans. Hence the birth of the “Body Worlds” exhibits, which have toured the world since the late 1990s. Here dead people are shown engaging in a variety of everyday activities, such as dancing and playing soccer. Hagens’s hitherto most celebrated display was of two plastinated men mounted upon a rearing plastinated horse. His work first gained a truly global audience in a sequence of the 2006 movie “Casino Royale,” where James Bond kills a man near a display of plastinated poker players.

Horse and rider

Everyone who has ever seen a “Body Worlds” exhibition always ends up asking the same two questions: Where do the bodies come from? And: Did their donors really volunteer to be displayed this way? Von Hagens swears that each of the many hundreds of corpses he has plastinated over the past thirty plus years was properly donated with the owner’s consent. This has not satisfied his critics, however. At the very first exhibition in Mannheim, visitors identified tattoos on some of the corpses as being identical to those found in Russian prisons, suggesting that they may have been sold on the black market and smuggled into Germany illegally. Later on, the authorities in Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia accused von Hagens and his staff of clandestinely removing cadavers from local hospitals and plastinating them for his exhibitions. More recently, the German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel has tried to demonstrate that many of Hagens’s latest bodies actually belonged to executed Chinese convicts, who likely had no say in the disposal of their remains. So far, von Hagens has successfully warded off such accusations, using a court order to stop Der Spiegel from making these claims. And in the case of the copulating couple, he assures his detractors that the man and woman involved (who never met during their lifetimes) expressly stated their desire to be immortalized in what many might regard as a compromising position.

  Sex couple

When you read about the “Body Worlds” exhibitions, they sound like a giant chamber of horrors. Not so when you actually take the plunge and visit one. The declared intention is strictly educational, the atmosphere sombre but focussed. “People are only scared when they hear about it,” von Hagens says, “but not when they see it. When you understand death, you will live a healthier life and worship your life.” This is a sentiment that von Hagens, a hemophiliac who has known about death since he first stepped on this planet, probably understands better than most of his critics.

The Skinned Man

While the exhibition’s educational impact is beyond dispute, the issues of taste and human dignity refuse to go away. Looked at from this point of view, the "lovers" are no more repugnant than any of the other poses on display. After all, in Germany the very notion of showcasing human remains in any form is not only ethically questionable, it is also downright unconstitutional. After experiencing twelve years of a Nazi regime that systematically murdered and humiliated millions, the framers of West Germany’s Basic Law enshrined the following words in Article 1: “Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.” This emphasis on human dignity goes so far as to prevent people from keeping the ashes of their loved ones in an urn in their own homes, let alone scattering them to the wind. Dead people belong under the earth in a cemetery and nowhere else – certainly not on display having sex. As one outraged Berliner recently wrote in a letter to the Tagesspiegel newspaper: “There was a time when the mere thought of Nazi monsters making lampshades out of human skin sent a cold chill down the spines of (almost) every post-war German. Today, hundreds of people are lining up to gawk at this display of human scraps.”

And in what form does Gunther von Hagens plan to shuffle off this mortal coil? His will calls for his body to be plastinated in a series of slices, which will be sent as educational material to medical schools around the world so that he can continue “teaching” long after his demise. But this somewhat eccentric version of heaven can wait, for he and his staff of experts have a new challenge ahead of them: their next project calls for plastinating an entire elephant….

The “Body Worlds” exhibition is on display at the Postbahnhof in Berlin from May 7 to August 30, 2009.

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I've been pretty fascinated with this subject, Alan, since editing a piece for Salon a while back on it. Fascinating update. . .
They have nothing on Wisconsin.
We had ED GEIN!!
At christmas time, he used to give out cookies~~lady fingers.
I've seen two different versions of the Body World exhibit. Loved it each time.
I've been to three different exhibits, by two different companies and always had more questions than answers. One exhibit featured Asian rendered cadavers exclusively. So I echo your comments in that I didn't get a satisfactory answer on the provenance of the bodies, where they came from and/or how they were acquired. I may have been looking in the wrong places or asking the wrong people.

I'm also curious about your own post. The times I've been, the experience is strictly controlled with regard to photography. The guides and attendants were quite aggressive with people trying to take photos--of course the entrance literature and signs were explicit in the prohibitions--but that didn't stop people from trying. So, where did these images in the post come from? Just curious, and thanks.
I love what science can teach us all and how art can often be the vehicle for science lessons, but I find this repugnant. The guy appeals to our deepest feats and inability to look away at them. If he cannot document every single corpse's origin then they should be removed from the exhibit. I don't want to stare at some poor soul's plastisized body who had little or no say about being on parade.
I saw this show in Edmonton, Alberta last year. It was incredible and unless one has some kind of really ignorant view of our biological nature ( most religious folks in other words) it was truly educational and at the same time comes from the same place Da Vinci's anatomical drawings brought to life. I went with two younger people aged 19 and they were fascinated by the special and separated section on fetal development and pregnancy. The section on smokers' lungs made an impact. The extraordinary dissection of the neurological structure of the body and the vapourously gossamer capillaries of the body was well, elusive and a wonder of delicacy. Whilst I was there, I saw a number of medical students there for the experience of a lifetime as no way they will ever have the opportunity to study the human body so well dissected. It is the fusion of scientific dissection and art which goes back to the days of Galen and the Renaissance also. It has NOTHING to do with Nazism. I am from a family whose European roots were exterminated in the Holocaust and would be highly sensitised to such an implication and this does not in the least offend as it has nothing whatever to do with such an offense. Showing sexual acts are just a part of who we are and how our bodies work. It is no different from any other activity. The idea behind these exquisitely produced exhibits is to show how the machinery of the body works. At the same time, it is not in the least grisly nor does this person have the feeling of the voyeur. One must separate the life from the remains. When we die,,,We die and our anatomical remains are just that..remains. If they are contributed to such an exhibit by free will by the person, why not? The German laws of burial are understandable vis a vis their history but that does not mean that this exhibit is tantamount to revitalising the Nazi past. Rather it is in awe of the beauty of our anatomic machinery.
Interesting. I will admit that I feel very uncomfortable with this exhibit. I have no issues with plastinization and the other displays - shoot, I dissect cadavers for anatomy students, so I have no qualms about real bodies being used as learning tools. However, placing the bodies in sexual positions disturbs me - what purpose is really being served by it?
I saw a similar exhibit but with a different name so maybe different provider. I found it utterly fascinating - loved it. My partner was a bit queasy, though. I'd go again in a heartbeat.

I think the issue of whether the people consented is huge. But if they donate their bodies for this, or any other scientific purpose, I don't see a problem...if the poses are tasteful (they were in the exhibit I saw). The exhibits are truly educational and also I think inspirational or even spiritual if that's your bent. They really show the marvel that is the human body and get you to think about what is inside you that you take for granted. It's incredibly to contemplate the complexity of human systems.

If we want to get into what's disrespectful of human life, there's a very long list that I'd rank ahead of these exhibits, starting with most violent movies that show people being brutalized and killed.
I refuse to go see this. I believe the Chinese witnesses who have come forward and said yes these people were prisoners, tortured and killed and their bodies were used for this exhibit. I do not support torture and ensuing death and find it quite eye-opening that all of my anti-guantanamo friends make a beeline for this exhibit. Hypocrisy reigns. I cannot take any of you seriously. Whenever you have the opportunity to show unification with victims of torture, you don't. It's all about the entertainment.
Even though I find this repulsive, it is damn brilliant art. Sex and death are fundamental components of life - the symbolism of the bodies in sexual positions is powerful and thought provoking.
I appreciate these comments and am intrigued to see that the debate here mirrors the one being held all over the world. People are pretty much divided into critics, who view von Hagens's shows as ghoulish, and dedicated fans who perceive the exhibits as a sort of mystical experience. This then leads to all kinds of other questions about how far science and education should be permitted go in enlightening people about their true physical and psychological nature. This touches on divisive issues like evolution, sex ed etc., which von Hagens essentially blows right out of the exhibition hall.

Obviously, the key issue is that of consent, which still has not been resolved to anyone's satisfaction.

--> bbd: "Body World" allows for no private photography, so these are the official publicity shots.
--> neil fiertel: yes, by displaying plastinated cancerous lungs and other diseased body parts that we could protect better through a healthier lifestyle, von Hagens is arguably performing a valuable public service.
--> Dustbowldiva: "placing the bodies in sexual positions disturbs me - what purpose is really being served by it?" Well, it's certainly gotten us all talking!
I saw this exhibit (sans copulating couples) and was fascinated by the intricate anatomical displays, but was also unnerved by the Disneyesque poses of the bodies. But what I find REALLY interesting is that von Hagens was the son of an SS soldier. That he has chosen this "living" for himself is more than ironic.
This is really sick! I want to see it out of morbid curiosity. Very well written.
It's disgusting and perverse and those individuals wishing to view such things are equally so.
Until the consent issue is settled unequivocally, I don't think that I'll go to one of these exhibits.

Also, although sex is certainly a natural function, and nothing to be ashamed of, I'm not sure that I would want my dead body posed in the act of copulation with a stranger's body for eternity, even if I did donate my body. (If there is a consent agreement, I think an individual should have the the ability to "opt out" of an exhibit of that nature.) If I hadn't given explicit consent to that, I think it would be a violation of my body.
I guess I am disgusting and perverse, but I saw the exhibit when it came through and, like other commenters here, found it completely fascinating. Normally, I am completely put off by anything medical - can't look at vials of blood without passing out, can't look at anatomy drawings and contemplate my inner workings with out getting queasy. Sure enough, my first reaction was revulsion and I actually got a little light-headed, but slowly my curiosity and fascination took over and I opened up to the beauty of it all. Not only did I queue up for over an hour and pay an outrageous amount of money to get in, I would actually do so again. My mother and my 8-year-old enjoyed it, too.
I think it's pretty incredible art.
Funny, I never thought of these exhibits as art, though I can see how one might think about them that way. I saw the exhibit in San Diego and a larger exhibit in Los Angeles, both were wonderful. I appreciated the poses that many of the bodies were in because all of them were quite normal natural positions and portraits of normal movements.
The LA exhibit also featured an ostrich and a giraffe, which were amazing.
I saw the first exhibit to come to Los Angeles. A friend and I went twice because we found it so powerful and illuminating.
A note for those who find this awful: If you consent to have your body used for scientific purposes after your death without any exclusions, you have consented to basically anything. Be aware of that.

At least in my state, there are different levels of consent on the driver's license form -- e.g., there's one for organ donation only, which would help people who need transplants, but exclude use of your body for something like this, or for medical school or other research use. You might not like what is done with your body under those auspices, either, if this bothers you.

Again, for me, the issue is consent. If people gave general consent for use of their bodies after death, there's no issue here. I've known many people who truly don't care what happens to their bodies after death - they feel at that point, it's just dead meat. And/or they'd be thrilled to have their bodies become something like this - which they'd feel was educational, a work of art, or spiritually moving.

People's feelings about dead human bodies vary widely. To assume it's objective truth that it's sacrilege to do anything with them is evidence of one's own cultural/religious beliefs, nothing more. To make sweeping judgments based on those beliefs is to inflict harm on living human beings in defense of dead ones. (When we judge someone's actions as evil or wrong, we often tend to punish them.)

Also, again, there is more than one entity that does shows like this. The one I saw was not called Body Worlds and none of the bodies were posed in provocative or disrespectful ways such as having sex. Almost all were simply standing.
This was very interesting, well-told, but freaky.

I’ve never seen this exhibit or heard of Von Hagans. Thanks for enlightening me. While I can appreciate the art behind the science, I side with the readers who question whether proper consent was obtained in using these cadavers. Additionally, I fail to see any incremental artistic value in posing dead bodies in a coital position.
thanks for an interesting and thorough post! this show disturbs me over the issue of consent. i was raised in a family that believes strongly that the best use of anyone's body is at a medical school. i wouldn't hesitate to donate my body to science or art: it seems to be so wasteful to pickle it and stick it in the ground.

this attitude however, totally freaks out my husband. i can tell that he would feel very hurt if i passed and there was no grave or otherwise "sacred" space for him to come and commune with my body.

that's why i had to comment on silkstone's comments. there is no way for me to either ok or disapprove of these exhibits without more knowledge about the origins of the bodies. this doesn't have anything to do with making sweeping judgments about what is ok or not ok for human bodies, it is all about empathy for what was once a person, with a family. if these people did not consent to be displayed like this, then there's little difference between this and the soap made out of holocaust victims. i think the comparison to horror movies is misplaced: horror movies depict actors who were compensated and consenting (and most importantly, often still alive to star in other movies). this is more like watching a snuff film with the assumption that the subject was intending suicide.

until i know how these bodies were obtained, i can not see these exhibits. and i say this as a person who enjoyed the heck out of a school field trip to a chiropractor's school where we got to dissect a human corpse. this is not a visceral reaction, it's an empathic one.
It's been, unfortunately, too long since I was last in Berlin. I didn't think anything could shock Berliners but was apparently mistaken. I appreciate your objective approach to tackling this subject. It's fascinating in words I can't quite manage to express.
I'm going to have to check my driver's license to see what it is that I have agreed to donate. If it's my entire body, I think I'm going to have to change that. 'Cuz god forbid that I end up spending the rest of eternity fucking some guy who used to be a Republican or something.
how interesting! This is the first I've heard of it. It is fascinating, and cool, and gross all at the same time.

Jeanette, you're hilarious!!
I saw the show when it came to Vancouver (or one very like it). It creeped me out despite my attempts at intellectual rigour. But I saw it all.

And I don't believe that the allegations about the corpses being victims of torture has ever been proven. Until then, I will withhold judgment. The same certainly cannot be said for those incarcerated at Guantanamo.
And I share the surprise that Berliners would be shocked by this exhibit. Berlin is one of the most sophisticated art cities, with some of the most beautiful museums, in the world.
--> emma peel
The shock is largely reserved for the churches, human rights groups, and newspaper readers. I agree that it would take a lot more than this to shock the Berlin art world!
This is the first time I have ever heard of this artist, too, so I'm intrigued--though not so certain that I would attend this exhibit if it came to town. I think I, too, would like stronger verification of the bodies' origins to feel comfortable seeing it.
I saw this exhibit when it was at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.
From what I could tell, each body was well documented, with personal explanations from each body "owner". Of course, I'm sure some could have been forged. The attendants were also very vigilant about visitors taking pictures and being respectful.

But it never occured to me to be offended by this. Sure, "grossed out" might apply, in the same way you might be grossed out by videos of live medical procedures or autopsies.

My overall impression was one of amazement, wonder and curiosity. It struck me as very "DaVinci-like". It didn't occur to think of it as art - the whole experience was a scientific one. The corpses give viewers the opportunity to see the human body in a way that the general population has never had access to before - an up-close, personal view of a body that's very like one's own. Even seeing images or video of this does not come close to replicating the experience of attending the exhibit.

The fact that there are some people offended amazes me. Let's take it for granted that every one of these bodies, when inhabited by a soul, gave its consent to be used thusly.

This is SCIENCE! It's EDUCATION! It's perfectly valid (although I don't feel this way myself) to wish that your body not be used in such a way after death, but let's be honest here - once you're dead, you pretty much don't have the power of consent any more! Those around you who are trusted with the care of your corpse may be (and hopefully are) respectful of your wishes, but COME ON! This man, from what i could tell from the exhibit, meant this as an educational exhibition. If there are those out there who see this as art or blasphemy, they are entitled to their opinions. But we should not let old systems or doctrines dictate the uses of new technology without reevaluating those systems/doctrines first.

Phew. I don't think i've felt that serious about something all week!
I urge all of you, if you haven't seen this exhibit, to go see it before you pass judgment.

And I second the comments about your take on this, Alan. Thanks for the information and update!!
Thanks for the excellent article and a belated Happy Birthday! My family and I went to a Body Worlds exhibit while it was here in Los Angeles and it is the most fascinating work of art that I have experienced.
I'm a donor for this project. I have gone through a process of consent and release in which my body will be claimed to be used in Body Worlds Exhibits. I proudly carry my donor card at all times. I always knew I wanted to donate to someone instead of taking up real estate in a graveyard or mausoleum. I donate to Body Worlds because my two favorite things in this world are art and science, and I could think of no better way to rest in peace than showing the next generation what a human body looks like from the inside out. So if you wonder where the bodies come from....there you are. From people like me.