Not so long ago I saw a fascinating photo of a 3-D anatomical model of nothing but the human vascular system. When you take everything away from the body and leave just one feature — skeletons being a typical example — it suddenly amounts to an impressive reminder of something that we all have inside of us and carry around all the time, yet never observe directly. Blood vessels, the surface of the muscles or bones are never exposed, unless something is terribly wrong. So fascinating.
I wanted to share that photo on this blog, however I wasn’t able to trace it. Still, while searching for it I did stumble upon images from an odd exhibition I had never heard of before. It’s called Body Worlds. After looking at these pictures in various online outlets but not actually reading any of the accompanying text, I developed the impression that these are incredibly detailed anatomical models, created to such an extent of realism as to appear almost confronting. I imagined that’s what the buzz was about.
Body Worlds is a series of exhibitions featuring real human bodies. Dead bodies, of course. Furthermore, these bodies, and parts thereof, have been preserved using a special method. The inventor of this method, German anatomist Gunther von Hagens, writes about it on the official website of this art project:
When, as an anatomy assistant, I saw my first specimen embedded in a polymer block, I wondered why the polymer had been poured around the outside of the specimen as having the polymer within the specimen would stabilize it from the inside out. I could not get this question out of my mind.
He then goes on to describe how he first tried infusing a human kidney with liquid Plexiglas. It didn’t work very well, yet in this experiment he had stumbled upon the basic principle of plastination, the preservation technique which yields tissue specimens that don’t smell or decay, and can even be touched.
The plastination technique halts decomposition of dead tissue by replacing the water and fats in the tissue with a curable polymer — such as a silicone or epoxy that can be hardened via curing. To undergo this process, the ‘specimen’ (such as a human body) is flushed with formaldehyde to stop decay and make it somewhat stiffer; then it is put in a bath full of acetone, a solvent that works as a precursor for the actual polymer because it dissolves all the fats and the water.
Afterwards, to pull the polymer into each individual cell of the tissue, the specimen is immersed in a bath again — this time in a liquid polymer — and put in a vacuum chamber, which draws the acetone out of the cells, making way for the polymer. After the plasticised specimen is arranged in a desired pose, the polymer is cured and the whole thing hardens.
I can’t decide whether to feel mostly fascinated, mostly creeped out, or somewhere in between. While plastination itself is not that far a cry from older preservation methods such as mummification, and specimens can also be used in teaching and research, there is still something unsettling about dead human bodies being put in different poses and paraded around in exhibitions as art. However, that is perhaps also the appeal of the whole thing. There is, of course, controversy.
What do you think?
It was difficult to obtain pictures I could post without infringement, because von Hagens is one of those people who likes to fight over copyright with people who take photos of his work. The specimen in the featured image is from Flickr and it’s shared under Creative Commons. I’m not sure whether it’s one of the originals or from a knockoff exhibition.