Katie (who gets credit for this title), Samantha, and I got sucked into the “OUR BODY” exhibit at UT’s Stark Center, which houses a “museum” dedicated to the instillation of norms of human “fitness.” Named after fitness gurus Joe and Betty Weider, its galleries include a huge, rotating plaster cast of a statue of Hercules, a reading room featuring sports history and periodicals; its walls are graced by posters of athletes and groups of men and women working out.
The call to fitness contextualizes the experience of the OUR BODY exhibit. Only during our making our way through the exhibit did its other investments become apparent. Of course, like all exhibits, it is rhetorical, guiding spectators teleologically through its scenes. Lighting, technology, and walls of quotations from philosophers, artists, and anatomists all give dignifying credence to the display.
But there are numerous problems with this series of representations. Numerous scholars and journalists have attended to how the plastinicization of corpses as a way of preserving them for display, the selection of “fit” bodies posed in athletic endeavors, and the pedagogical revelation of “diseased” bodies all may be aligned aesthetically and ideologically with Nazism. They are bodies made to work in the name of freedom from superstition and romance. (See https://sites.google.com/site/stopbodyworlds/media-coverage/body-worlds-body-aesthetics, and the excellent rhetorical/anthropological analysis at http://blog.lib.umn.edu/sphpod/sphpod/schulte-sasse.mp3).
In addition, the gender politics of the exhibit are alarming. Almost all of the “plastinates” as critics call them are male; penises and testes dangle matter-of-factly from most, with signs identifying the penis at every one. The female body is reserved for and sequestered in the “prenatal” area, marked off with warnings about the material within being sensitive and commanding reverence from viewers. Parents are exhorted to escort their children or protect them from this content. Inside this small display, one gets a look at the female reproductive system, with strange emphasis on the vulva, labia, and even pubic hair.
Then there are fetuses suspended in plastic at various stages of development. A wall sign describes the changes in fetal development week-by-week; except for the title of the display outside, the fetus is referred to as “the baby” after the blastocyst stage. The reservation of femininity for reproduction and the reverence dictated toward gestation have clear ideological import. (At the same time, the display of fetuses–shrimplike even at 8-12 weeks–would give pause to any abortion opponent looking for ammunition.)
In other cities around the world, the exhibit has gone under a number of names and has included varying numbers of plastinates. In some exhibits, the donors of corpses and their release forms are put into the foreground. In Austin, however, there is no mention of where the bodies came from. One is struck by the fact that they are overwhelmingly male and Asian in their features and coloration. (There is something seriously disturbing about seeing a corpse holding its own removed skin draped over one extended arm.)
A little digging reveals that it is likely that the bodies in the Austin exhibit (with the exception of the fetuses, of course) are those of Chinese convicts, numbers of whom could have been political prisoners, who were executed or died in prison. There is no way that these once-persons gave their “consent” to participate in this ostensibly educational, scientific project.
According to Boston Herald journalist Darren Garnick, German scientist “Gunther von Hagens’ factory in Dalian, China’s third largest port,
reportedly employs 260 medical school grads to work the “Body Worlds” assembly line. Factory workers get $200-$400 a month to peel skin,
scrape fat off muscle and replace bodily fluids with soft plastic. Based on a presumed 40-hour work week, that comes to $1.25 to $2.50 an hour for what has to be the grossest job in the Eastern Hemisphere” (https://sites.google.com/site/stopbodyworlds/media-coverage/the-working-stiff; see also http://www.postgazette.com/pg/07175/796418-109.stm).
This fact more than any other reveals the exhibit as a for-profit enterprise mounted by the self-aggrandizing inventor of the plastinicization process. (Not incidentally, visiting the exhibit is not cheap.)
Finally, the exhibit cultivates pornographic voyeurism, which, one could argue, all such representations do. I am not embracing a scopophobic stance, however. Numbers of groups have protested this exhibit where it has appeared (notable among them are religious groups for the unavoidable materialism of the display). Given the heinous provenance of these bodies, the employment of sweatshop labor in the tranformation of them into objects, and the posing of the dead as physically fit Barbie dolls, protest is a reasonable response.
At the very least, we should encourage spectators to recognize the rhetoricity of the display and to question the conditions of its production and the social relations of its consumption.
At UT, the exhibit is called: “OUR BODY: The Universe Within.” Marketed as a display of “actual human bodies,” the display will, according to promotional material, make it so that “You will never look at your body in the same way again!” It is, according to the brochure, a “blockbuster exhibit!”
The exhortations to regard these molded, arranged bodies as “our bodies” and to learn a new way of seeing ourselves through these viscerally exposed models may cultivate identification with these anonymous others. However, it seems to me that the import of the title “OUR BODIES” is the claim to ownership, wherein property and propriety intersect.