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Contemporary Gothic: The Grotesque and Artificial Corpses

Contemporary Gothic: The Grotesque and Artificial Corpses
© Photograph by Gareth Bryant

In 2002 the biggest sensation to hit London was Body Worlds, Gunther von Hagens’s travelling exhibition of dissected and elaborately displayed corpses. Preserved by his newly developed method of “plastination”, whereby all bodily fluids are pumped out of the body and replaced with plastic, the bodies were positioned in a variety of poses designed to show off the wonder of the human form, from a “swimmer” and a “chess player” to the pièce de résistance, a man astride a full-sized plastinated horse.

Predictably, Gunther von Hagens’s show divided audiences. While many saw it as a glorious celebration of the human body and a unique chance for improving the scientific knowledge of the masses, others objected to a variety of factors: from the allegedly dubious provenance of some of the bodies to the queasy commercialization of the exhibition, and the lack of female bodies on display (a fact initially explained by Gunther von Hagens himself as due to the relative lack of female donors, and later, somewhat defensively, as due to apprehensiveness concerning voyeurism).

Gunther von Hagens’s all-consuming obsession with plastination could not avoid appearing sinister on a Channel 4 documentary profiling his career — his wife readily admitting, without apparent irony, that he would choose plastination over her — and he soon became known in the media as a kind of latter-day Dr Frankenstein. Frankenstein, of course, aimed to build new life out of his corpses, which Gunther von Hagens does not pretend to do, although he does portray the plastination process as a kind of life-in-death, a form of immortality of the body, if not the soul.

Gothic echoes surrounded the London show, which was housed in a converted warehouse in Whitechapel, just around the corner from the sites of Jack the Ripper’s infamous crimes of the 1880s, and close to the location of the sideshow that exhibited Joseph Carey Merrick, the “Elephant Man”, in the same period.

The controversy surrounding the show, which Gunther von Hagens claimed was absent in most other countries in which he had exhibited, was caused in no small part by the cultural context in which it took place. Nevertheless, Gunther von Hagens, a consummate showman, appeared to thrive on the frisson of historical transgression.

The bodies on display were rigorously stripped of any personal identifying features: identity was subordinated to science. In this way what was intended as a celebration of humanity seemed to jettison that very humanity: it became difficult to distinguish the bodies from sophisticated plastic dummies. The spectacle of death became clinical, detached, emotionless. The frisson of the “real” that Gunther von Hagens’s publicity promised was oddly diminished and further mitigated by the white space of the gallery and strategic potted plants. Despite the media frenzy, the exhibition contained few horror-show thrills: this was a Disneyfied death, purged of all its messiness.

It is difficult to discuss an exhibition like Body Worlds without incorporating personal response. The material deliberately positions the spectators to make comparisons with their own bodies, in the tradition of the memento mori: “as I am now so you will be”. Individual reactions to the corpses were one of the most interesting things about the exhibition, as suggested by the crowds hunched around the comments book at the end.

For me, one figure in the exhibition provoked a slightly different response to that of detached curiosity. His cadaver was divided into perfect vertical slices, the identifying skin of his face removed, in common with all Gunther von Hagens’s bodies. Yet his body remained marked, with a variety of now blurry tattoos. He would have remained recognisable to anyone who had known him well. Skin is the repository of experience; the marks and lines that appear upon it tell a story about that body’s identity.

For me and my companions at least, this was the single exhibit to provoke an emotion other than curiosity and vague distaste, and to cross a line (among others) between science and art — for long before Gunther von Hagens’s intervention, this man had attempted to make his own body into a work of art, however crude the results may have been. This was a body that had made choices and displayed the consequences of those choices; it was a body that sought to modify itself, to present itself in a particular way. In death, his body became discomforting, even shocking, for it still possessed traces of an identity other than that imposed by the master doctor.

Gunther von Hagens’s massively successful exhibition, attended by 840,611 visitors in London alone, illustrates a contradiction within contemporary Gothic. Its flayed and dissected bodies, animated with a ghastly semblance of life, recall literary revenants like Frankenstein’s Creature and Dracula. However, divested of a history, plasticised, dangled in pristine white gallery space, the bodies lack any of the more traditional social or psychic resonances we expect from Gothic phenomena. They do not (for most viewers, at least) provoke the extreme emotions of horror or disgust more usually associated with Gothic bodies. They are stripped of affect in a similar way to that described by Fred Botting, who suggests that traditional objects of horror have become over-exposed to the point of banality: “Unless the horror is spectacular no interest will be excited: the human feeling is extinguished or anaesthetised or boredom sets in.”

On one level, perhaps, this is as it should be: Gunther von Hagens has no interest in presenting his work as gothic, appealing instead to the “objective” discourses of anatomical science; the association with the infamous body-snatchers Burke and Hare or Frankenstein is a media construction.

The Body Worlds cadavers are grotesque rather than Gothic: a conglomeration of a bodily process and the macabre jokiness of postmodern Carnival. Yet in the single instance when the traces of history, in the form of personal experience, are allowed to creep back into the frame, then a moment of uncanny recognition occurs (this was once a person like me — familiar — but now is unfamiliar — dead and dissected).

Contemporary Gothic is more obsessed with bodies than in any of its previous phases: bodies become a spectacle, provoking disgust, modified, reconstructed and artificially augmented. On one level this treatment of the body seems coextensive with the Gothic simulations and artifice described in the last chapter. Gothic bodies are frequently presented to us as simulations, as replacements of the real.

Gunther von Hagens’s plastic corpses retain almost none of the “original” body tissue; plastic has literally replaced flesh. While not what Jean Baudrillard would term pure simulacra, in that they do retain a relationship with the “original”, evidencing a desire to illustrate a body constructed as “real”, they simultaneously appear to evacuate all sense of nostalgia for personal history. Elevated into archetypes such as “swimmer” or “reclining woman”, the beings inhabiting Gunther von Hagens’s brave new world are idealised, perfected, sterile, monstrous.

Elsewhere, contemporary artists more self-consciously present the human body regarding simulacra. Jake and Dinos Chapman’s ‘Great Deeds Against the Dead’ reproduces Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes’s sketch of mutilated war-time corpses as sculpture, with cartoonish plastic dummies standing in for his strictly observed bodies. Through incessant media representation, the Chapmans’ version has arguably become (at least temporarily) the better-known image, replacing not only the “original” bodies, invested with historical and political significance, but also Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes’s “original” representation of them. The Chapmans’ mutant child mannequins, which are fused into freakish hybrid beings, with anuses for mouths and penises for noses, have a similar effect.

Interestingly, they caused less controversy at the Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997 than Marcus Harvey’s giant, iconic portrait of the ‘Moors Murderer’ Myra Hindley, created from children’s handprints. Marcus Harvey’s image, a striking comment on media representation, lent itself both to re-representation within the media and to desecration in a way that the grotesque bodies of the Chapman Brothers’ already-defiled children did not.

Both artworks tapped into a current moral panic surrounding childhood innocence, but whereas Marcus Harvey provided a scapegoat, the Chapmans attacked the myth fuelling this panic, denying it currency. The mutant children running and playing in the plastic ‘Eden of Tragic Anatomies’, wearing identical white trainers, suggested the artificiality of our fantasies of Rousseau-esque innocence, proffering the lush beauty of a poisoned world instead.

As in ‘Great Deeds Against the Dead’, the Chapmans’ child bodies are simulacra: they belong to their own, autonomous, synthetic realm, their artificiality reproducing nothing more than the constructedness of our cultural concepts of childhood.

Alternatively, it could be argued that contemporary Gothic’s preoccupation with freaks, scars, diseased flesh, monstrous births and, above all, blood is an attempt to reinstate the physicality of the body in an increasingly decorporealized information society. Mark Quinn’s ‘Head’ could match the Chapmans’ ‘Great Deeds Against the Dead’, also shown in ‘Sensation’. A self-portrait moulded from eight pints of the sculptor’s frozen blood, the object seems to offer an intimacy, an uncanny physical presence, that troubles the division between the “representation” and the “real”.

In this respect, Gunther von Hagens’s ‘Body Worlds’ show illustrates some of the contradictions that surround our thinking about bodies in contemporary Gothic. The corpses in the exhibition, in their stylized poses, are putting on a performance without their own agency, as if manipulated by the strings of a deranged puppet-master.

Their grotesquerie treads a fine line between the natural — the gory inner workings of the body — and the artificial — the creative agency of the dissector’s knife, and the inexorability of his plastic-pumping contraption. Human yet plastic, Gunther von Hagens’s bodies are both real and a replacement of the real. They are poised on the boundary between art and science, education and entertainment, celebration and exploitation, detachment and disgust. Above all, in the 40,000 people worldwide who have signed up to donate their own corpses, they demonstrate our willingness to make a spectacle of ourselves.

The traditional Christian belief in bodily resurrection has been replaced by the notion of a secularised resurrection as a show, with physical immortality the payoff rather than a spiritual one. Whereas once Gothic fiction was generated around the idea that one’s body might be abducted and dissected against one’s wish, as in Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson’s famous tale ‘The Body- Snatcher’ (1884), now individuals are queuing up to be dissected in a bid for a kind of deathly celebrity.

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