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