The prospect of dying has always seemed frightening if not enigmatic, subject to varying interpretations and descriptions, the avoidance of a direct mention but rather safely enclosed in euphemisms like “kicked the bucket, breathed their last, gave up the ghost, the loosening of the silver cord, extinguished, expired, passed on.”
Within my community as in many African communities, death is a great and irredeemable tragedy even when it occurs at an advanced age. The reverence with which the Luos of Kenya view their ancestors is observed in the performance of a series of rituals and many feasts for the dead. More than ten kinds of different rituals are performed depending on the age, sex and marital status of the deceased, in their respective locations in rural areas.
In this regard, the Luos are generally known in Kenya as a people seriously concerned to a point of near obsession, with their burial place. It is believed that the dead can see what the living are doing, and that if these rituals are not performed and burial does not occur in a designated place, normally on ancestral land, then chira (curse or bad luck) will follow the family left behind.
All this is at the back of my mind as I enter the Body Worlds exhibition at Damrak in Amsterdam. I stiffen with apprehension at the sight of cadavers..plastinated, odourless and frozen for all time in everyday ‘action’ poses, with eyes wide open, as if eerily observing the living. There is the basketball player in flight, a dueling pair, the poker playing trio, the runner and even a guy blowing his trumpet.
Instead of being in a permanent resting place in the ground, cemented and covered, a tombstone etched with a name, date of birth and death, periodically visited by loved ones bearing flowers; these plastinates travel around the world in these poses, stark naked, anonymous and exposed by dissection or slicing, displayed in the context of science, health and medical education. If that’s not blatantly bizarre I don’t know what is, I certainly need some dissonance as it is hard to believe that these plastinates were living beings who walked the earth in the past.
But far from having the intent of shocking living onlookers, the brains behind this project, Dr Gunther von Hagens, invented the plastination procedure in 1977 to educate medical students. He states however, that the interest of lay people in the plastinated specimens inspired him to think of public exhibitions, followed by the realisation that he had to offer a heightened sense of aesthetics to avoid shocking the public and to capture their imagination.
Prof. Dr Hans-Martin Sass of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University states in a review “This exhibit gives the public an opportunity usually reserved for medical professionals. Viewers get a chance to look inside their own bodies and experience the wonder and respect for what it means to be human.”
Being human involves introspection leading to behaviour change as there are comparisons on display between a healthy pair of lungs and the shriveled black lungs of a smoker, what our organs, veins, arteries and the skeletal system really look like and foods that can boost us towards healthy living. Over 200 anatomical specimens of real human bodies reveal the complexity, resilience and vulnerability of the human body.
After the success of the travelling BODY WORLDS exhibitions in Rotterdam (2010/2011) and Amsterdam (2012), Dr Gunther von Hagens decided to open a permanent exhibition in the centre of Amsterdam, at Damrak 66. The Happiness Project tells the amazing story of our bodies and the influence that the emotional phenomenon of ‘happiness’ has on our health.
Have you ever been to Body Worlds? Do you consider it a macabre freak exhibition or a study of the human anatomy?