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Wednesday, July 27, 2011 / 5:02 PM

Getting Under Their Skin: Artists Gather at BODY WORLDS Exhibit

Getting Under Their Skin: Artists Gather at BODY WORLDS Exhibit

Standing in the darkened Exploradome of the Saint Louis Science Center, I hear a disembodied voice talking about how “the specimens are impregnated with silicone” and a vacuum “effervesces the acid out of the body,” allowing plastic to seep into the cells. It’s Family Night at “Gunther von Hagens’ BODY WORLDS & The Brain.” Soon, brave young artists will be showing up with their sketchpads, eager to draw the human body in an entirely new way.

I step tentatively into the exhibit. There are bodies everywhere, spot-lit, the ivory and faded brownish-red of muscles and tendons almost glowing. The text of the first sign reminds me that as adults, we have fewer bones. Of course, if we had no skeleton at all, the text adds, we could only roll around.

Trying not to think about WALL-E, I approach the first figure. “This gestalt plastinate is posed as a dancer,” the text states. I note the careful wording and move on to “Yoga Lady,” who’s lying on the ground, her torso arched, hands over her head, fingers pointing toward her back. “The Soccer Player” has a ball poised on his toes, his legs a stretch of sinews with raw, perfect grace.

Consciousness is just as physical as these bodies, the exhibit reminds me: “Neuroscientists view consciousness as a physical mechanism, not located in a single area but related to neural patterns and brain structures.” Body Worlds must have been scared of disappointing romantics and theologians, though: The next sign is a wall-sized blow-up of a photo and quote from Khalil Gibran: “Your body is the harp of your soul…”

Oh, please. You can’t have it both ways.

They’re trying, though: There’s another Gibran quote a few paces away: “…for the soul is our dwelling place.” I glance over at “The Angel,” a figure whose entire surface has been dissected. Surely this isn't what Gibran was thinking; I can’t help but think that quotes from William Gibson’s Neuromancer or an anatomy textbook would make better sense. You can’t separate flesh and spirit this cleanly and deliberately, then Velcro them back together with fuzzy lyricism.

Next sign: “About 90 percent of our actions and reactions are controlled by unconscious memory.” Sigmund Freud, now, he would be happy here. I imagine him strolling through the Exploradome, fingering his white beard and nodding with satisfaction at the frankness of introductions like, “This skateboarder’s upside-down trick offers insight into the anatomy of the buttocks.”

A 12-year-old boy ducks past the skateboarder and settles in front of “The Thinker.” Fascinated, I wonder what he sees; what draws certain sensitive, artistic minds to particular figures.

Turns out he’s chosen it because, thanks to crossed legs and a pensive forward lean, it won’t require him to draw genitalia.

“So what do you make of all this?” I ask.

“Interesting,” he says slowly. “Kind of disgusting.”

A retired chap walks by and unfolds his chair in front of a woman—whoops--plastinate, posed almost classically, but with her belly slit to reveal her internal organs. He begins to sketch, unconsciously smoothing out the tendons until she looks “normal,” meaning skin-clad. We talk about the ironies of human perception: His quick pencil strokes look more “real,” more “human” to me than the actual body tissue assembled in front of us.

I glance at the figure’s stringy tendons and then fold my arms across my body, rubbing my freckled arms, grateful for their shame.

“The hardest things to draw are the hands and feet,” the artist, Robert Jones, tells me. “People forget about the joints, and the fingers look like four fat worms.”

I nod and drift away. Just who is this von Hagens chap? A hemophiliac in Heidelberg, Germany, I learn later. His childhood hospital stays triggered a fascination with medical science, and he became an anatomist. He invented the Plastination process to improve the education of medical students. Now that he’s donned his trademark black fedora and taken his exhibitions on the road, he’s incurred the wrath of quite a few Catholic priests and a handful of rabbis; they feel that exhibits like these undercut the reverence we owe the human body.

Unfazed, von Hagens is now perfecting a wafer-thin slicing technique. He’s said he will donate wafers of his own body to several universities so he can continue to teach after he is dead.

I go back to Jones. Would he donate his body?

“I’ve had thoughts about it,” he says. “You’re permanently here. You are not going to be buried in the ground and eaten by the bugs.” He tilts his head, thinking. “The other option is cremation. But I just think I want something of me left someplace.”

So…any down side? “Just, you’ve got your family. They can go to the tombstones and see you. Here, you’re a traveling road show, so if your family wants to come see you, they have to fly and then buy a ticket.

“And we don’t know her name or anything about her,” he adds, the distress coming in a sudden burst as he waves his pencil toward the plastinate. “If the kids say, ‘Which one’s my grandfather?’—well, you’re all gonna look the same, ’cause they take your skin off.”

In the sign at the entrance, the Body Donors are capitalized and thanked, but we are warned that we will receive no details, because this is not about individual lives or tragedies. It is about all of us.

I don’t think I would have found the individual and the universal mutually exclusive. But maybe the exhibit’s abstract coolness works as a counterbalance, lessening the jolt of such strange, intimate glimpses below the surface.

I notice it’s gotten easier to be here, now that more artists have arrived and I’m not alone with my bared selves. Disgust, one of the signs informs me, is one of six basic emotions in the human brain.

It’s automatic with something this visceral, I guess. Does it fade because we’re desensitized, or because we begin to confront the reality of what’s supposed to be kept sealed safely inside us?

An art teacher is happily drawing an almost impossible pose—“Just beautiful”—and another older gentleman is enthralled by “Elegance on Ice,” a male plastinate frozen in the act of spinning a woman who’s bent backward, her back almost touching the ice, her legs crossed gracefully, one hand in his outstretched hand. The artist sketches fast, thrilled: “You are not going to be able to find a model that’s going to hold a pose like that for more than 15 minutes!”

I go back to the 12-year-old, who’s looking carefully and roughing in a really nice sketch.

“What do you think now?”

He shrugs. “It’s still pretty messed up.”

The next artist nights are for adults only; nude models will take their places amid the plastinates, striking similar poses. August 30 and September 27, 7 – 9 p.m., $10 per night.

From the Comment Book at “Gunther von Hagens’ BODY WORLDS & The Brain”:

“It was amaising! I don’t like exhibits but I loved this one.”

“Well…I think it’s interesting!”

“This is sooo awesome! But nasty also; we have to learn some way and this is it!”

“How do you keep the body still?”

Oh, dear.

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