3 Nov

“What does it mean to create a life? A work of art? … Frankenstein’s monster is a symbol of art as inhumane manufacture… This notion of assembly recalls ancient fables of composition: Apelles forced to cull one feature here, another there, from the many beautiful faces he examined as models for Helen’s perfection; or Zeuxis selecting from five beautiful maidens of Kroton the perfect limbs of one, the perfect breasts of another. In these stories, the artist picks and chooses among body parts like a male-chauvinist grave robber… These accounts of mechanical composition (combine the parts and then add life) were a classical cliche by Mary Shelley’s day and a worry, for they opposed art to nature and other sources of holistic or reproductive creation.”
– Wendy Steiner, from the introduction to the Modern Library Classics edition of Frankenstein

A school trip headed by the Biology department led me to the BodyWorlds exhibit at the Science Centre. The teacher-in-charge asked me if I had cross-department contributions to share (the girls had read Frankenstein the semester before I started teaching). I didn’t until after we got out. Pre-plastination, the bodies had been painstakingly opened to reveal divisions between muscle, artery, brain and bone, and they weren’t fixed in typical laboratory-style poses. “The Skin Man” stood elegantly, his own hide, body hair and all draped over one outstretched arm; “Santa Bones” came complete with two reindeer, antlers still attached, skin stripped down so we could see were real, too. “Phoenix with Birds” still had her breasts attached; she knelt with her arms and face uplifted, birds rising from her palms. The birds were made of a red, entwined, artery-like substance – or they could have been real arteries, I wasn’t quite sure. Riding on the theme of regeneration and rebirth, a plaque next to her pointed out how the exhibit maintained the uneasy balance between human mortality and sustainability.

To give the bodies of those that have passed on a “second life” quite separate from their previous existences (who can say if “The Basketballer” played any basketball in his lifetime?) made me remember Shelley, whose novel in itself was “quite literally a body stitched together out of pieces”. Among others, it includes allusions to Genesis, Shakespeare, Ovid, Milton, Goethe, Wordsworth/Coleridge/Byron/Keats (and of course Percy Shelley), Joseph’s Priestley’s History of Electricity, The American Declaration of Independence – where the parts “become hideous, perverse, in their new context.”

Despite the unsurprising controversy surrounding BodyWorlds from the first, I found nothing perverse about these bodies’ displaced context. They had been hyper-humanized, almost, while in some cases their internal organs hardly hid unflinching truths, like how we know the “Gymnast” was a smoker (his lungs were blackened). It neither alienated nor imposed on viewers.

I like to think about the kind of creative processes that must have gone into the preparation of an exhibit like this one: explosive brainstorms, affectionate-aggressive debates between the artists and scientists involved, the dilemma of what to preserve at the expense of losing an authentic appearance. Scrapped ideas, what we never got to see. (The Solitare Mystery – I’ve been looking at a lot of old books lately – “only the winning tickets are visible.”) The ones in charge have the most work, but also the most fun work. I keep telling myself this (and it can be applied to most situations): if you want to learn something, the best way of doing so is to consider exactly how you might teach it to someone else.


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