Review: Body Worlds Vital

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Body Worlds VitalPerverseness.  In a word, that’s what attracted me to the Body Worlds Vital exhibition. As a twisted enthusiast of the grim and the gory, I salivated at the opportunity to view human innards that belonged to the formerly living, in a setting that is non-threatening and legal. However, Body Worlds Vital was not a platform from which to feed my fiendish curiosity. Rather, it is an educational exhibit that informs on the various machinations of the human body and illustrates how our lifestyle choices affect our body’s ability to function.

Each specimen in this extraordinary exhibition was once a human being who gave express permission for his or her body to be displayed to the public. Using the plastination technique invented by anatomist Dr Gunther von Hagens in 1977, the bodies are preserved by replacing the body’s fluids with fluid plastics (silicone, epoxy, polyester) which are then hardened. This results in a specimen that is dry, odourless and durable.

Concealed within glass cases, human specimens undertake various activities including dribbling a basketball, contemplating a game of chess, or performing CPR on another. Almost normal, except that each specimen has had his or her skin removed and perhaps their rib cage opened like a… well, a cage, or their skull split to reveal the brain, or their spine halved to reveal the spinal cord.  Individual organs, organ systems, artificial parts, and transparent body slices are also on display, each accompanied by an informative plaque that highlights a different aspect of the human body and how it works. The exhibition also contains occasional visual presentations discussing by various means what occurs in the body during a heart attack, or human fertilization, or the creeping onset of alzheimer’s.

The main purpose of the exhibition is to show how the way in which we treat our bodies day-to-day affects us in the long-run. I’m an impatient student, so rather than thoroughly reading the accompanying information, my eyes glazed over at the medical jargon and instead focused on the comparative organ displays of how a regular-sized heart compares to the bulging heart of an athlete. Or how a healthy, non-smoker’s lung compares to the grey and dilapidated lungs of a long-term smoker. I even fumbled around with a blood pressure monitor and discovered with gleaming pride that my blood pressure is perfect. Other highlights include the alarming foetal display in the Pre-Natal Gallery which showcases the phase of growth and organ maturation of a human foetus up to 33 weeks.

I giggled in silly schoolgirl embarrassment when I saw the “adult” Anatomical Cabinet. The display is titled Origin of Life – The Sex Act. Two plastinates are suspended in an explicit sexual position to illustrate what occurs inside the body during sexual intercourse. Needless to say that the educational wall-sized plaque is the only one in the entire exhibition that I read completely. I learned fascinating tidbits including that in ancient times, it was believed that male sperm formed in the brain, flowed through the spinal cord and into the penis. Needless to say the plaque points out that the former owners of these bodies gave their written consent for their bodies to be immortilised in such a manner.

Body Worlds Vital presents the human anatomy as a coalescence of exquisite art and masterful engineering that is ingeniously designed to nourish, protect and coordinate itself. However, the human body is not self-sufficient or invulnerable. To maintain its strength, health and vitality, it is entirely dependent on what we feed it and how we treat it. Every anatomical display forces you to question how well you look after the only body you will ever have. And there is simply no better avenue for that brutal self-analysis than while you’re examining a battered liver at an exhibit and comforting yourself with the thought that, at least you’re not THIS guy.

Nwabisa Mbana

Body Worlds Vital takes place at the Watershed, V&A Waterfront, 10am to 7pm every day until 27 November 2016.
Book tickets here.

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