Gunther von Hagens: Art is Dead, Long Live the Deceased

Body Worlds exhibit in Chicago


Body Worlds exhibit in Chicago

Denez McAdoo


Why do all artists have to be anti-social histrionic narcissists hell-bent on deconstructing and perverting all of society’s most valued concepts on morality and assumptions of normality? Sometimes I don’t want confrontational or subversive artistic statements, I just want a few pretty pictures. Would it be too much to ask if we could just settle for Thomas Kinkade “Painter of Light” or those adorable little “Precious Moments” alien baby statues? Can’t art just be about reassuring us of those happy little picturesque moments in life that, well, never truly existed?

But no, we’ve got to have so-called “artists” like Polish-born Gunther von Hagens spoiling all our isolated delusions of optimism. Ever since earning his doctorate degree from the University of Heildelberg in 1975, von Hagens has been walking the previously well-defined line between art and anatomy. Never the twain shall meet, wasn’t that the deal?

He began his illustrious career as a resident lecturer in the Institute of Pathology and Anatomy at Heidelberg University, where in 1977 he developed a groundbreaking technique in the world of anatomical science that he called plastination. In this technique, von Hagens patented a method for removing the fluids from human tissue and then forcing a reactive polymer such as silicone rubber or epoxy resin in to replace it. What this means is that after the plastination process is performed, what is produced is a perfectly preserved and positively putrid piece of petrified person. All gratuitous alliteration aside, von Hagens did manage to create important development for science and he later formed and headed the Institute for Plastination at Heidelberg.

However von Hagens really first began to make a name for himself when in 1995 he opened his show titled Body Worlds. Premiering in Japan before moving on to various cities, the exhibit consisted of a collection of his plastinated cadavers, arranged in various poses and positions, each featuring different states of dissection. Although von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibit experienced immediate popularity, it did not come without its fair share of criticism.

Many critics accused von Hagens of not only exploiting the deceased, but going well beyond the interest of science and placing the bodies in, what they considered, to often be degrading and disrespectful situations. Posing figures range from corpses riding skateboards doing handstands to a horse’s mounted cadaver holding their own entrails. Although the most often noted piece in his exhibit is of a plastinated pregnant woman whose abdomen is dissected to reveal a fetus inside.

Though von Hagens maintains that he work is both educational and entertaining, the simple morbid nature of his work causes many people to demand that he works solely for the sake of science. Though on an artistic level, it does bring up some interesting questions on society’s views of life and death. Even though von Hagens continually states that all his specimens are from willing donors that explicitly wished to have their lives remembered by having their remains given back to society, von Hagens continues to dodge accusations that he receives bodies purchases from Chinese prisons and mental facilities. In fact, von Hagens claims that during a recent tour through London he received hundreds of offers from individuals to have their bodies become part of his exhibit following their death.

But even in light of this, von Hagens has repeatedly had both his reputation attacked and his exhibit damaged. He has faced several attempts at charging him of illegally transporting human cadavers. In 2002, a man caused about $50,000 worth of damage to the Body Worlds exhibit when he began to destroy exhibited works with a hammer. More recently, on March 27, two unidentified women stole a 13-week old plastinated fetus from the exhibit at the California Science Center.

Currently, Gunther von Hagens has two separate exhibits in rotation: Body Worlds – The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies which is showing at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry until September 5, and Body Worlds 2 which will be at the Great Lakes Science Center until September 18.

In the end, the question still remains: is it art? Is it science? Is it just plain old disgusting? While you contemplate that, I’ll be over here admiring my velvet Elvis wall hangings.

For more information on Gunther von Hagens and his controversial work, go to