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cadaver art makes a hit

updated sat 20 aug 05


Don Goodrich on thu 18 aug 05

All this healthy discussion of Body Worlds and similar exhibits tends
to validate its artistic value. Indeed, the medical cadaver as art form is
a concept that goes back at least as far as Vesalius. Just look at his
artfully posed subjects in those 16th century anatomy albums.

My personal take on this agrees with Bamboo Karen's. It's the ability
to relate what one sees to one's own experience in a body that makes
these cadavers memorable.
While waiting to view the exhibit last week (entry times are controlled
to avoid crowding) I wandered the museum, and in a stairwell came across
an old exhibit from the 1940s. It consisted of a series of windowpane-sized
glass slides of cross-sections of a human body. Ho-hum, old medical-school
stuff. My wife and I may have been the only people in the place who noticed
it that day.
By contrast, the plastinated and artfully posed people who donated
themselves to Body Worlds showed me things about myself that I had
never been able to see. Any potter who's marveled at the exquisite pain
of sciatica will appreciate it far better on viewing an exposed nervous
system; the sciatic nerve visibly wending its way from lumbar vertebra
through joints and muscles to the foot says more than any number of
John Glick articles. Very many of the bodies whose lungs are visible
have blackened lungs from years of smoking. I couldn't help wondering
how mine compare.

The genius of the doctor / artist responsible for these works is in
discovering what can be done with the medium. He has put in the years to
master it. Anyone who achieves mastery, whether potter, chef, painter,
perfumier, dancer, or musician, will eventually discern the limits of the
medium, and some will find ways to transcend those limits. There's no
reason why preparing medical cadavers should be an exception. Sometimes you
just gotta show your stuff! Undertaking to display a horse with rider minus
their skins, the rider holding his own brain in his right hand and the
horse's in his left, shows that the doctor and his team are no longer doing
things for medicinal purposes only.

It's worth noting that in Chicago the Museum of Science and Industry is
the last remaining building of the Columbian Exposition of 1892-3, where it
was originally the Fine Arts Building. Body Worlds perhaps blurs the
distinction between Art and Science better than most things on display
It's also worth noting that on any given day in that museum, the exhibit
that still draws the biggest crowd is the incubator where the baby chicks
are hatching.
Still the Greatest Show on Earth.

Don Goodrich in rainy Zion, Illinois