I have taken my first steps into “Body Worlds,” an exhibition at Vienna’s Museum of Natural History, and it has sparked a memory. The room where I am standing—dark, somber, strangely hushed—exhibits fetuses at various stages of development, placed on blocks that evoke a pagan circle of standing stones. The show’s mastermind, German doctor Gunther von Hagens, has suctioned all the liquid and fat from the small bodies and filled the soft tissues with hard plastic through his ingenious process of “plastination.” Usually, if you see a fetus in a museum, it is floating in a jar of liquid and is red or yellow and translucent. These bodies seem to be flat gray, and that is what ignites the flashback, a surreal freeze-frame of my son, born a month prematurely by C-section: As the medical staff pulled him out of my wife’s womb, just for a second, his flesh looked gray.
I’ve come to Vienna with a critical eye, to question whether some of the bodies displayed in the latest version of this traveling show (first created in 1995 but massively larger now) could include those of political and religious prisoners from China. Yet von Hagens is drawing me in. The stated purpose of his exhibitions is health education, and I am hearing a whisper of scientific justification: Is this not the mystery of life? Your curiosity is good. It absolves you. Go further. Step inside. I consent, and enter von Hagens’s freak show.
Start with the man who’s wearing nothing but boots and skis. He is performing a perfect split. His skin has been removed, revealing every sinew, every muscle. His eyes are intense, fixed on the horizon and—ready for the joke?—from the skull down, his body has been split open, sawn in half.
Every apparently serious display in the exhibition is countered by another that smirks at you: Instead of chipmunks playing poker, it’s a lively troika of corpses in various states of corporeal undress. One is little more than a skeleton with foolishly bulging eyes. Naturally he has the winning hand—death always does—and you can imagine the giggles as they set this one up. Clearly, von Hagens wants to be seen as a wild and crazy lab-guy.
And yet, after several rooms of bodies in sublime and macabre postures—for example, a corpse playing chess against an imaginary opponent (fill in the Bergman reference yourself)—it becomes obvious that von Hagens also desires to be appreciated as an artist. Naturally, he must challenge my bourgeois inhibitions concerning necrophilia; at the show’s exit, suspended in midair like the bodies in the medical thriller Coma, a couple engages in frozen sexual intercourse, in a pose favored by porn directors. Von Hagens has cut open the woman’s womb and peeled it back so that the full penetration—the male presumably plasticized during rigor mortis—is permanently exposed.
Now, it is a fact that there are 10-year-olds walking through this room. But that’s not my concern. What’s bugging me is that some of the bodies, the female ones in particular, have unusually short legs. And there’s something about those legs, combined with the small, refined skulls and the slight frames, that looks Chinese.
There aren’t supposed to be any Chinese bodies in the exhibition. But here’s where the plot starts to thicken: There are actually two competing shows touring the world, von Hagens’s “Body Worlds” and “Bodies: The Exhibition” managed by Premier Exhibitions, a U.S. entertainment company. The bodies in the latter show are provided by von Hagens’s very own sorcerer’s apprentice, Professor Sui Hongjin.
Back in Germany in the late 1980s, von Hagens dreamed of plastinating bodies, and his student Sui convinced him the process would be cheaper in China. In 1999, Von Hagens Dalian Plastination Ltd. received approval from officials in Dalian, a well-managed coastal city in Liaoning Province. In 2001, under von Hagens’s direction and Sui’s management, the factory began spitting out plastinated bodies at a good clip, with some medical institutions paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single specimen. Meanwhile, Sui set up his own secret plastination factory, which ultimately became Dalian Hoffen Bio-Technique, at another location. Von Hagens found out and expelled Sui from his company, and Sui took “Bodies: The Exhibition” on the road.