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Hagens, the "plastinator" who has mounted a big box-office show of human corpses (for the most part) whose flesh has been replaced by plastic, thereby preserving them indefinitely.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.