The Exhibit That Challenged Our Understanding of Death and the Human Body
John Troyer on the Controversial Exhibition, The Cycle of Life
In every major city in the world there are countless museums that exhibit the products of human culture, sometimes featuring highly unusual themes. However, there is not a single museum about humans themselves—an institution that exhibits the anatomy of healthy and unhealthy human bodies in an aesthetically pleasing way using authentic specimens.
–Gunther von Hagens, Donating Your Body for Plastination
In an interview with National Public Radio’s All Things Considered entitled “Cadaver Exhibits Are Part Science, Part Sideshow,” Body Worlds creator Gunther von Hagens discussed his new millennium plans for a future dead body exhibition. The program’s reporter explained that in 2006 von Hagens sent questionnaires to approximately 6,500 people who wanted to donate their bodies to Body Worlds after they died.
Von Hagens asked some “provocative questions,” according to the radio story: “For example, would they consent to their body parts being mixed with an animal’s, to create a mythological creature? Would they agree to be ‘transformed into an act of love with a woman or a man?’ Von Hagens says that on the sex question, the majority of men liked the idea, while the women did not.”
Von Hagens’s questionnaire should hardly come as a surprise. Since opening in the mid-1990s, the Body Worlds exhibitions have generated equally large ticket sales and audience numbers—44 million visitors and counting as of 2019. What von Hagens has done over the years is produce a portfolio of work that consistently poses dead human bodies in technologically novel ways, even though many of his exhibitions suggest a connection (however tenuous) with centuries-old anatomical displays.
His Body Worlds exhibitions succeed by explicitly using anatomical science’s history and language to produce popular culture narratives about the dead body. His methods always involve plastination, a kind of dead body embalming technology that he defines as “an aesthetically sensitive method of preserving meticulously dissected anatomical specimens and even entire bodies as permanent, life-like materials for anatomical instruction.” Even for the always-industrious von Hagens, however, the exhibition of dead human bodies mixed with animal parts and dead bodies posed in sexual positions sounded far-fetched.
That is, until May 7th, 2009, when Gunther von Hagens opened a new Body Worlds exhibition in Berlin, Germany, called The Cycle of Life (Der Zyklus des Lebens). In one section of the exhibition he and his team posed two different pairs of bodies in sexual positions. Von Hagens released a statement in which he explained that the exhibit “offers a deep understanding of the human body, the biology of reproduction, and the nature of sexuality.” He also made it clear on the Body Worlds website that he wanted to bring the copulating corpses to other cities, such as London.
Each couple consisted of a man and a woman engaged in heterosexual sex. Von Hagens posed the first couple in a sitting position and then sliced their bodies into a thin cross-section that showed the male penetrating the female. The other display involved two, fully formed bodies in which the female corpse was sitting astride the male’s body and the female’s back was to the male’s face. Both couples were in a separate room from the rest of the exhibition, and only viewers ages 16 and up could enter.
Unfortunately, the May 2009 exhibition neither presented human and animal body parts fused together to create mythological creatures, nor has Gunther von Hagens apparently attempted to create these fantastical bodies.
During Body Worlds’s over 20 years of existence, it has continually turned the dead body into something new. It is this quest for “newness” (and novelty) that von Hagens is arguably embracing with both The Cycle of Life exhibition and his “provocative questions.” The most productive aspects of those questions have little to do, however, with the controversies that surround von Hagens and Body Worlds. Rather, it is more interesting to ask why positioning the dead body in human sex acts or fusing it with animal parts is itself provocative?
Without too much exaggeration, the bodies in Body Worlds do everything but have sex. Posing dead bodies in sexual positions, perverse as it sounds, is one of the few, common human activities not regularly displayed by von Hagens. Posing dead bodies mixed with animal parts is also not entirely different from the current exhibitions.Gunther von Hagens has given many museums new financial hope by tapping into an older form of cultural shock, that is, the long-running morbid fascination with the human corpse.
One of von Hagens’s more famous plastinates is of a man riding a horse. This exhibit piece is a prime example of the merger between human and animal bodies. Von Hagens has simply proposed to eliminate the demarcation line between rider and horse in order to create a centaur. Displaying dead bodies having sex is certainly more provocative than fusing dead bodies with dead horses, but both these proposals simply encompass the next logical step (and perhaps conclusion) for the Body Worlds exhibitions.
The entirety of Body Worlds is itself a provocation, a dare, a direct challenge to look at the plastinated dead bodies. It is no small coincidence that in America, von Hagens exhibits his work most often with science and natural history museums. By placing plastinated corpses in science museums, von Hagens indulges popular culture’s fascination with the shocking dead body but he also suggests to the viewer that it is perfectly acceptable to look at abject bodies. Add the prospect of dead bodies having sex to the mix, and a science museum’s stamp of approval will only guarantee that the so-called provocation is entirely educational.
In a most peculiar way, Gunther von Hagens has given many museums new financial hope by tapping into an older form of cultural shock, that is, the long-running morbid fascination with the human corpse. To reject von Hagen’s questionnaire out of hand because it seems too perverse, voyeuristic, or gratuitous misses a fascinating series of arguments. Discussing dead bodies posed in sexual positions and the creation of human-animal mythological creatures offers an opportunity to position von Hagens’s overall work among debates in cadaveric anatomy, human taxonomy, and death. It is also far more productive to embrace von Hagens’s provocative questionnaire and its possibilities for the technologies of the corpse.
The history of anatomical display, such as von Hagens’s, is hardly new and reaches back several centuries. The display of human sexual anatomy, as an educational tool, is very much a part of that history. In A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America, Michael Sappol gives this example: “Anatomical discourse provided a vocabulary in which bourgeois women could speak of their embodiedness, including the sexual body, in a refined, dignified manner, without resorting to overly delicate euphemisms, elaborately indirect allusions, or vulgarity.”
These displays often involved wax models, drawings, or medical textbooks. Based on von Hagens’s recounting of his questionnaire’s results, the female respondents clearly did not support the sexual displays, but it is unclear what they found objectionable. The male respondents had no apparent problems with displaying postmortem sex acts, although the numbers on heterosexual versus gay sex would be interesting to see. No further discussion is given at all as to whether or not the respondents objected to fusion with dead animals.
Von Hagens’s survey group is presumably already inclined to donate its bodies for his use, so it seems fairly reasonable that they are not bothered by Body Worlds’s display practices. Even if the underlying presentational concept behind Body Worlds remains acceptable, it is the use of cadaveric anatomy in overtly sexual positions that many people find especially objectionable.
When The Cycle of Life exhibition opened in 2009, for example, a number of German politicians responded with disgust, shock, and moral outrage. Social Democrats MP Fritz Felgentreu stated, “Love and death are obvious topics for art, but I find it quite disgusting to use them in this way.” Green Party MP Alice Ströver proclaimed, “This couple is simply over the top, and it shouldn’t be shown.” Christian Democratic Union MP Kai Wegner presented a somewhat more pragmatic critique: “I am firmly convinced that [Gunther von Hagens] just breaks taboos again and again in order to make money. It is not about medicine or scientific progress. It is marketing and money-making pure and simple.”
Michael Braun from the conservative Christian Democratic Union stated that the dead bodies posed in sexual positions were “revolting. Hagens rides on a wave of taboo-breaking and the couple plumbs the depths of tastelessness.” To put a dead body on display (even with its anatomy in full view) is one thing. To put a dead body on display with its anatomy sexually positioned in/around/and near another body radically alters that visual tableau. It reduces dead bodies, as von Hagens’s German critics assert, to something vulgar, less human; the corpses become a great deal more animalistic.
Humans are an anomaly, however, in the animal kingdom, and that is the underlying historical dilemma that Von Hagens’s entire Body Worlds project confronts. Carl Linnaeus, the 18th-century inventor of modern zoological taxonomy, explicitly fashioned our animal existence around a bold presumption: We humans know that we are human. Not only do we recognize our own humanity, we also recognize that the other animals are not human. What we lacked at the time was a proper scientific name. In the tenth edition of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae (1758), he finally gives human primates a full binomial designation: Homo sapiens.
Yet Linnaeus’s designation for human primates is a methodological paradox. Giorgio Agamben uses Linnaeus’s central argument in the Systema’s introduction to explain: “[M]an has no specific identity other than the ability to recognize himself. Yet to define the human not through any nota characteristica [a physical trait], but rather through his self-knowledge, means that man is the being which recognizes itself as such, that man is the animal that must recognize itself as human to be human.”
Being human, then, is based not upon any physical characteristic, such as the binomial designation for our extinct hominid cousin Homo erectus, but rather upon our superior cognitive skills. Our genus is Homo, just like our closest primate relatives, but our species is sapiens, that is, the ones who are self-aware. We Homo sapiens are hence defined not by our anatomical structures but by our intellect. When any human being dies, however, intellectual ability (as located in the brain) eventually stops functioning and the “person” attached to that body ceases to physically live. The death of the person also produces a corpse, and that dead body is composed of physical, human anatomy that will begin decomposing if left unpreserved.
Death remains a persistent physical transformation for Homo sapiens that, as animals in the animal kingdom, we cannot currently escape. Per Linnaeus’s suggestion, we humans do recognize ourselves, both in life and death, but only so far as this recognition avoids the unsightly presence of the dead body’s decomposition. Homo sapiens are therefore confronted by the following taxonomical, postmortem dilemma: the unaware human corpse biologically decomposes, and through that process of breakdown it becomes an animal body composed entirely of anatomical nota characteristica.
Death physically reduces Homo sapiens to that one thing we are supposedly taxonomically superior to: anatomy. This is both a physiological and an ontological dilemma. If in life humans are defined by their cognitive skills, then how is it possible that death so quickly reduces the human being to an animal state? Von Hagens takes this physiological and ontological dilemma an entire leap forward by combining it with the possibility of post-mortem human sexuality. In an unintentionally ironic critique of Linnaeus, von Hagens is making a less-than-subtle argument about human-animal taxonomy. He is taking human anatomy and using it in acts that seem to absurdly demonstrate Homo sapiens’ cognitive superiority: Even when dead, human beings can still figure out how to have sex.
But von Hagens is also reducing human sexuality to something that is neither procreative nor purely pleasurable. These dead bodies will have sex without ever knowing that they are physically capable of such a hyperstimulated, Bisga Man-esque activity. Postmortem sex is sex without purpose, function, or evolutionary importance. However, it is something for audiences to stare at and think about in the most fantastical kinds of ways.
Von Hagens is inviting the viewer to look at and take total control of an utterly impossible situation—but a situation his questionnaires suggested men strongly supported and women wanted no part in. Even then, the female body is still subjected to a postmortem objectification and sexualization that parallels the everyday lived experiences of many women.
Trying to exert total, technological control over the dead body’s decomposition has become a labor-intensive project for the modern First World. What that constant labor produces, however, comes with its own limitations. A possibility that leads to this question—How far are people willing to go to prevent this postmortem human-animal slippage? To what didactic extremes can the dead body be taken to appear still alive, laboring, and, most importantly, human?
One of the best examples of these didactic borderlands (for both educational and entertainment reasons) is the work done by Gunther von Hagens in the Body Worlds exhibitions. But even the ever-imaginative Gunther von Hagens faces a potential limit when making dead bodies look alive, more human than animal, and anatomically active. That limit is human sexuality. Rethinking what constitutes the apparent pathologization of human sexual anatomy is the most productive way to circumvent this same limit.
Excerpt fromTechnologies of the Human Corpseby John Troyer, © 2020 Massachusetts Institute of Technology.