The lack of identifying features avoids offending viewers by drawing their attention away from the person whose body is on display and toward the body itself as an object of wonder or scientific curiosity, Desmond said.
"This process of subtraction that's taken away all the social markers in a sense idealizes and universalizes these individuals so that symbolically they come to stand for the undifferentiated human, which allows us to look with impunity because we're not really looking at a person or an individual," she said. "Von Hagens' plastinates could never be displayed with their skins on."
The corpses appear lifelike and often are positioned in athletic poses. Plastination also leaves the muscles pink, as if infused with blood, Desmond said, adding to the impression that the bodies are still animated.
"So there is the fencer, the chess player, the bicyclist, the archer, the figure skaters," she said. "And everyone looks like a marathon runner."
In the exhibition Desmond saw in London in 2002, the specimens were in pristine condition; in all cases but one (a pair of disembodied, cigarette-blackened lungs) they bore no signs of the actual or probable cause of death.
"In many ways, we don't see graphic images of death," Desmond said. "We see fictionalized images of death."
The context in which the bodies are presented is meant to soothe the moral, ethical and legal concerns that some audience members might have about the display, Desmond said. The exhibitors prominently assert in the museum halls and on their website that the individuals displayed voluntarily donated their bodies "for the qualification of physicians and the instruction of laypersons."
In a possible nod to religious viewers, one of
|Contact: Diana Yates|
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign