Where two worlds collide
Earlier this year Gunther Von Hagens' Body Worlds 4 exhibition came to Manchester. I couldn't not go. Like the 3000 other people who tramped through the Musem of Science and Industry that day, I went out of curiosity. The chance to see the complete (un)adulterated body inside out, without the mess and the smell and the pain and the sorrow - happens so rarely, if ever before. I wasn't sure if it would make me squeamish, sick, faint; I can't get a paper cut without feeling dizzy; I can't watch an operation without my stomach turning upside down. But no. There was not a squeam or a squirm to be had. Partly because the exhibition uses (and how!) one sense - sight (but god, how much I wanted to touch). It's a fucking menagerie. A hall of invected mirrors, a freak show without any freaks. It's art. And it's science. It's a beautiful, informative, seductive package. You want to get closer. You 'ooh' and 'ah' like you're witnessing the broken shards of a car crash, like you're sitting in comfortable seats watching a disaster movie. It's 'other people'. It's something that's happened to someone else. But unlike the victims of Pompeii, these people did not 'suffer for their (or anyone else's) art'. They died however they died. And only once their body was vacated of life or soul or whatever, did the magician don his surgical gloves and get out his tool kit.
Laid out and strung up like the specimens they were, show pieces, stars in bit parts. Some were segmented, others diced and sliced, topped and tailed, the ingredients of a gourmet meal, a sumptuous cannibalistic dish. Organs were freed from their rib cages and lit up in their full glory. A set of cancer-ridden lungs shared space with a healthy pair. Shrunken and distended livers sat side by side. Reproductive organs were laid out and pinned down like rare beasts, four-legged, a head/torso combo. Mutants that might begin to move if it weren't for the pins securing them in place. Brain slices showed the results of a stroke; kidney slices showed tumours. And then there were the whole body slices. Hanging from the ceiling, looking like stained glass windows, or weird car air fresheners. Exposing the whole innards, showing the effects of obesity, the still heart, the deflated lungs, the non-functioning liver. The most awe-inspiring, though, were the actual bodies. Displaced. Not real bodies, surely, but models. Except for the pores visible in the skin, the lips, eyelashes, belly buttons left intact. Hanging like a Newton's Cradle, piece by piece. Or halved. One side completely separate from the other. Or literally stepping out of one's skin; being split like the atom, side to side, front to back. Spine split straight down, penis split length-wards. Also, one of the best features - the relay-runner - the body in front all red muscle, the body behind just skeleton - both from the same donor, both still joined at one foot. How surreal these things are; these objets d'art, the way flesh and bone is parted, the way the body's interior goes asunder, the way pieces of skin are left like arm bands or stockings, the way the meat is carved and the innards distributed like the remains of some Medieval torture device or the offerings of a sacrificial body.
If you get the chance go to this exhibition. You will be awe-struck and inspired, I promise you.