What lies beneath skin? What does bone, muscle, and sinew really mean? BODY WORLDS, one of the world’s most well-known traveling exhibitions, has for over twenty years tried to answer these and other questions you might have about that hunk of flesh you carry around 24/7: your body. In 2013, the exhibition came to South Africa, and it was a marvel. It’s been seen by 40 million people in 100 cities across the world.
180 whole bodies, individual organs, and transparent body slices are on display. And yes, they’re real. But how? It’s done through a process of plastination, something invented by famous anatomist Dr Gunther von Hagens in the 1970s. It involves replacing the water and fat in biological tissue with certain plastics, turning them into specimens that don’t decay or smell, can be touched, and retain most of their original properties. The bodies on display have all been donated (15 000 people worldwide have gifted their remains for this very purpose). The most talked-about and infamous part of the previous showcase was the final exhibit: a male and female having sex (insanely interesting).
The new exhibition coming to South Africa in March, BODY WORLDS Vital, focuses on the human body in both its optimal and worst states. Healthy organs are placed next to diseased ones. Some of the individual exhibits include a pair of figure skaters performing a lift and a soccer player dribbling a ball. The intention is to make the study of human physiology available to everyone – children are allowed to attend, as long as they are above eight years old and accompanied by an adult.
But if you saw the exhibition in 2013, why should you go again? Marketing director for the promoter, Great World Exhibitions, Charlotte Damgaard, told AndThePlotThickens, “All the plastinates [in this exhibition] are new, and also the story is completely new. Before, it was very much about the aging process, and in this one it’s very much about health and vitality, and the effects of healthy lifestyle choices on the body as opposed to the effects of say, chronic diseases such as cancer, AIDS… long term chronic illnesses.”
And yes, of course, many might feel slightly disgusted, nauseated even. I recall being horrified at the lungs of a chronic smoker. There is of course the morbid fascination with being able to stare at the body of someone who has passed away. Does this ‘living gaze’ dehumanise these people in any way? Considering they willingly donated themselves for this very purpose, no. Still, you can’t stop gaping. “These bodies are very ‘artistically’ presented,” says Charlotte. “They’re solid. They don’t smell. They’re not wet; they’re dry. It means what you see [might not be] what you possibly expect.”
It is an intensely visceral experience that is paradoxical; it reveals a world that is simultaneously secret and intimately familiar to each individual: the human body. And these exhibits are particularly fascinating; these bodies that are arrested, and suspended in time. Ultimately, it asks each participant an existential question about whether being human is dependent on the body, or the mind, or perhaps, if you’re so inclined, the soul. You decide whether god or evolution (or both) is responsible for this marvellous and intelligent design that is the human body.
BODY WORLDS Vital opens at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in Newtown, Johannesburg on Tuesday, 1 March 2016, and is on until 19 June 2016. Tickets range between R100 and R160.