Saturday, November 11, 2006

Death In The Streets

As if life in Berlin isn't grim enough, with help from the forthcoming James Bond movie and Germany's biggest publicity-hound self-anointed artist, we get to look at corpses everywhere we turn.

Many of you may already be familiar with Gunther von Hagens, the "plastinator" who has mounted a big box-office show of human corpses (for the most part) whose flesh has been replaced by plastic, thereby preserving them indefinitely. Von Hagens partially dissects the bodies, arranges them into arty poses, and then does the "plastination." As I understand it, his "Body World" show is currently touring the United States, although oddly enough it doesn't seem to have occasioned any protests. Although, you might think, as long as it's not in bad taste, why should it?

Meanwhile, back in von Hagens' homeland, we're being socked with these posters, which show a quartet of his plastinated people sitting around a table playing cards. The posters show a scene from the upcoming James Bond film, Casino Royale, which the Bond franchise has apparently decided to remake as a serious film instead of the lighthearted, acid-soaked caprice it was in its 1967 version. But the posters aren't for the film. They're for von Hagens' "Plastinarium," which is going to open on Friday in a four-story exhibition space in the German/Polish border-town of Guben, whose previous fame was as a manufacturing center for textiles.

Now, I've got to come clean here. I have a visceral reaction to von Hagens that has nothing, really, to do with him. It's a long, complicated story which I'm saving in all its details for my book, but essentially, I had arranged to cover an art show for the Wall Street Journal Europe back when I was writing for them. It was a group show, curated by a very prestigious figure in the German art world, and, not so coincidentally, featured an artist who was part of the team working on my English language magazine/website project. Sneaking her name into print could only enhance the project's prestige, I thought (although when I saw her pieces, I realized I would have commented on them no matter who'd done them). Anyway, there was a grand opening, I had a deadline of the next day, and I was in sort of a rush. For some unknown reason, I checked my e-mail just before leaving the house, and to my horror, there was an e-mail from someone from my dimmest past, someone who had meant a lot to me, and its subject read "Good Bye." Yup, an e-suicide note.

I dashed off a "don't do it" reply, calculated the time back where this person lived, had no idea of the phone number, or if this person's spouse was around, and, breathing deeply to calm down, I decided I'd just done about as much as I could have done. So I grabbed my hat, walked a few blocks, and entered this art show. And the first thing I saw was a guy standing, naked and dissected, with his skin casually draped over his arm.

The second thing I saw was a guy dressed exactly like that overrated icon of 20th century German art, Josef Beuys if Beuys had affected an undertaker's air. People were flocking around him, and I just knew this was the artist, as indeed it was. I quickly rushed around trying to find my colleague, and, when I did, told her in a rather out-of-breath way about my e-mail and my subsequent encounter with Mr. Skin. "Oh," she said in her perky upper-class British way, "there's several more of them scattered around the show. Have you seen my pieces?" I was happy to be led to them. And she was right: not only did von Hagens have several more of his plastic people on view, he had a corner with a desk, a catalogue of stuff for sale (to medical schools and other educational institutions), and a place an assistant would help you fill out the necessary legal forms so you could sign up to get plastinated after death!

Okay, I know the function of a lot of art is to give you the kind of sensory punch that can leave you feeling off-center, but I'm not alone in feeling there's something cynical about von Hagens' approach. The Sauerkrautmeister, having apparently just discovered Ananova's ability to deliver you custom news, yesterday sent me an article from a couple of weeks ago about a priest in Guben who's protesting the Plastinarium, predictably enough, and when I told him my story (my friend, incidentally, was fine, and continues to be fine, and long may that continue), he passed on some diary musings from when von Hagen's first three-ring circus Body World show hit town in 2001. With his permission, I quote from this document:

"It’s like something from Auschwitz. Auschwitz as a theme park; the politically correct Auschwitz: the victims weren’t Jews, or even alive when it happened, so: progress.
. . .

"Why nobody seems to see this “Korper Welt” nightmare as on a continuum with the morbid experiments of Mengele and his colleagues -- it’s “educational” in the same life-cheapening way -- I can’t grasp. Leave it to Germans, who dwell in a Literalist and Mechanistic Universe of frightening coldness to strip the human body of every grace note of metaphor or mystery. Yes, the body is just a machine."

But there's something more to this story, and it's something that hasn't been adequately investigated, because it's not illegal: where von Hagens gets his corpses. He refuses to speak about it, claiming privacy issues on behalf of the dead, but the disturbing answer seems to be that they come, largely, from China. That would explain why the ones I've seen have been so short, I guess, but...where do the Chinese get them? So von Hagens is buying corpses from a country which has untold numbers of people in prison and executes them on a regular basis, where environmental strictures are so loose that people die of pollution-related causes. Far from the innate grisliness of the objects, that's something I find deeply creepy.

Of course, I guess by now some of them could've been the art-lovers signing up at that show in Berlin. But all I know is that yesterday, without really leaving my neighborhood, I walked by four posters, one of which was a big-ass billboard, all advertisting the Plastinarium. An entertaining weekend out with the kids, or a cheap holiday in other people's misery? You decide. Me, I'm counting the days til the movie opens and they put up something else.

24 comments:

jimmy the hyena said...

Sounds cool! Maybe you could sign up to be plasticated then kill yourself Ed. That'd be one way out of Berlin.

jimmy the hyena said...

Hey, what about a plastinated bordello. A plastinated woman on display at the window in provocative lingerie. Inside the morbidly literalist clients could be checking out the line up of human machine sex workers.

wi11iam13 said...

ah yes von Hagens, love the stuff! and now with the murky provenance of the new work it has become sort of Burke and Hare for the globalized society...

jimmy the hyena said...

The man should do some animatronic plastinators like in Disneyland. That'd be especially groovy in the bordello. Like say a plasticated dominatrix whipping a plastinated client who's handcuffed to a bed and squirming in pleasure/pain. It be much better than Pirates of the Carribean, nicht wahr?

Anonymous said...

I think Hagens said if you put his hand over fire, he couldn't 100% swear that none of his bodies or parts of the bodies were from executed Chinese. I vaguely remember reading this maybe in the Spiegel when the China controvsey was heating up. He also has a "facility" in Uzebekistan. With that in mind and his cavalier attitude to it, I think as well that is is way shocking that Germans or whoever don't demand that this freak be put out of business. There was something similar in the states, in that a man on death row gave his body for a similar process...some sort of 3-D imaging, can't remember, but find it problematic as well.

daggi said...

He's had to drop the faux-"Professor" title, and I suspect he's not really a "von" either. All that fat around, no wonder he dresses up at Beuys.

On a positive point, the show was a flop in London.

Ed Ward said...

The death row case is quite different. A company was looking to do a digital micro-dissection to publish as a medical reference and needed a male and a female corpse, each in reasonably fit condition, to use as subjects. The woman's identity remains a mystery, and the only reason we know about the man is that he wanted it known that he saw this as an act of penance for the life or lives he'd taken. These documents are available to medical libraries and teaching facilities and are horrendously expensive, as they should be.

jimmy the hyena said...

A very beige answer! Your proto-beigecrat antecedents the New England puritains would be proud. Of course those that China executes are innocent and those that America eliminates are going happily to their well merited ends and trying to make their bodies "useful" at last in some little way. It'd be ultra cool if the clients in the animatronic plastinated bordello were CHAV's in Manchester or Arsenal jerseys and burberry caps with maybe an American frat boy or two.

wi11iam13 said...

more murky provenance here...
http://en.rian.ru/russia/20061103/55345996.html

and let us not forget Alistair Cooke
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,11069-1956952,00.html

Olivier said...

Granting that the chinese provenance of the bodies is unfortunate to say the least, I really think the comment by the Sauerkrautmeister was a cheap shot and I absolutely fail to see what Hagen's work has to do with Auschwitz and Mengele. For one thing Fragonard (not the painter but his cousin Honoré Fragonard) was doing the same thing in the 1770s. His écorchés. also very artsy, can be seen in Maison-Alfort and are not for the faint of heart. More generally it is part of a long tradition of turning anatomy into art.

Rather than waste ink over Mengele, you should ask yourself how it is that the most squeamish response to von Hagen's work to date and to his (eventually successful) attempt to conduct a public dissection there has come from the British government, the same bunch of holier-than-thou, pomaded and razor-creased thugs who have no problem with blowing up very live bodies in Iraq and elsewhere by the truckload. That might be a more fruitful line of inquiry.

anonymous, you are referring to the Visible Human Project. Again, I am totally baffled as to why anyone would have a problem with it.

Olivier said...

Sorry that should have been Maisons-Alfort. As a frenchman myself I have no excuse!

wi11iam13 said...

ah yes, the last time i was in Paris i had wanted to make over to see the exquisite work by Fragonard, but alas it was not to be. Gonzalez-Crussi has a fascinating text on this "Suspended Animation - Six Essays on the Preservation of Bodily Parts"

Anonymous said...

Yes, the death row case is different in many aspects. But if you are against the death penalty wherever it is, you may see there is a moral dilemna in taking advantage of a decision made by a man under those circumstances. He gave his consent but only after living under the conditions of knowing he would be put to death - most human rights organizations would call those inhuman conditions. I am not sure if we are giving him the right to give his life meaning as he sees fit, or if we took advantage of an inhumane situation...

Ed Ward said...

Ummm, who's this "we" you're talking about?

Anonymous said...

Ummm..the medical community. I just googled the topic a little bit and came up with this link http://venus.soci.niu.edu/~archives/ABOLISH/rick-halperin/may02/0366.html.
Joseph Paul Jerrigan didn't know this was going to happen to his body! It sounds like lots of death row inmates are being counseled to sign their bodies over to science and because they are mostly still healthy, no one seems to be thinking twice. Probably because a lot of people don't have a problem with the death penalty. But if you are against the death penalty, you can't condone benefiting from it. Oder? On a funnier note, at the end of this article, which I think orginally appeared in the Houston Chronicle, there'a a bit about the Germans being obsessed with the case and sending over a half-dozen film crews. Typisch!

Olivier said...

Regardless of one's position on the death penalty, as long as the man wasn't executed just so that NIH or von Hagen could help themselves to his body there is no connection and I think it's acceptable.

I find this dead body parts worship pretty off-putting and morally irresponsible. There are huge transplants waiting lists and many needless deaths because of this silliness.

wi11iam13, if you like this line of work I am told the Anatomical Museum in Innsbruck holds some interesting specimen. Stupidly I never got around to seeing them while I lived in Innsbruck, so I can't tell if they are truly worth the visit.

Olaf said...

Jimmy the Hyena, for heaven's sake, at least in that first paragraph, tighten up your text. Is "beige" worse than "opaque"?

"A new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example: and that, to a degree equally without example, secured by whoever chooses to have it so, against abuse."

WTF? Strive for clarity, directness, making each word earn its place. Learn from Ed's fine example of intelligent yet thoroughly accessible prose. Please! You're killing me.

Helmut Kohl said...

"Learn from Ed's fine example of intelligent yet thoroughly accessible prose"

while whining all the time about how crap Germany is - move to Ludwigshafen, it's great there.

Olaf said...

I was commenting on Ed's style, not necessarily his content. While he and I may disagree about Berlin (I loved it in the 1970s and love it even more now, though admittedly only a tourist these days), Ed knows how to write solid, readable prose and how to structure an essay. There are a lot of people who want to write like Foucault or Zizek, but very, very few can actually pull it off, so it's best to avoid attempted profundity in favor of clarity.

jimmy the hyena said...

Oh gosh thanks teach! Yes lets all strive beigely for clarity.

Olaf said...

Great, now Jimmy is spoofing my address--I won't be commenting here anymore. The 9:18 post was not mine.

I'm out. Thanks a lot, asshole.

Olaf said...

Oh great. Little Jimmy is spoofing my blog address.

Clever boy.

Ed Ward said...

We've now got moderation on comments, Olaf. Jimmy's out, and you're welcome to remain. I'll delete that spoofed comment, too.

Very sorry; this isn't the only blog he's doing this to.

Olaf said...

Many thanks, Ed. Sorry to have contributed to the troubles by poking at jimmy. I've added moderation to my blog as well. Man!