Between Motion and Rest: Encountering Bodies in/on Display

Sebastian Abrahamsson


The German anatomist and artist Gunther von Hagens’s exhibition Body Worlds has toured Europe, Asia and the US several times, provoking both interest and dismay, fascination and disgust. This “original exhibition of real human bodies” features whole cadavers as well as specific body parts and it is organized thematically around specific bodily functions such as the respiratory system, blood circulation, skeletal materials and brain and nervous system. In each segment of the exhibition these themes are illustrated using parts of the body, presented in glass cases that are associated with each function. Next to these cases are the full body cadavers—the so-called “plastinates”. 

The Body Worlds exhibition is all about perception-in-motion: it is about circumnavigating bodies, stopping in front of a plastinate and in-corporating it, leaning over an arm or reaching towards a face, pointing towards a discrete blood vessel, drawing an abstract line between two organs. Experiencing here is above all a matter of reaching-towards and incorporeally touching bodies (Manning, Politics of Touch). 

These bodies are dead, still, motionless, “frozen in time between death and decay” (von Hagens, Body Worlds). Dead and still eerily animate, just as the surface of a freeze-frame photograph would seem to capture spatially a movement in its unfolding becoming, plastinates 

do not simply appear as dead matter used to represent vitality, but rather [...] as persons who managed to survive together with their bodies. What “inner quality” makes them appear alive? In what way is someone present, when what is conserved is not opinions (in writing), actions (in stories) or voice (on tape) but the body? (Hirschauer 41—42) 


Through the corporeal transformation—the plastination process—that these bodies have gone through, and the designed space of the exhibition—a space that makes possible both innovative and restrictive movements—these seemingly dead bodies come alive. There is a movement within these bodies, a movement that resonates with-in the exhibition space and mobilises visitors.

Two ways of thinking movement in relation to stillness come out of this. The first one is concerned with the ordering and designing of space by means of visual cues, things or texts. This relates to stillness and slowness as suggestive, imposed and enforced upon bodies so that the possibilities of movement are reduced due to the way an environment is designed. Think for example of the way that an escalator moulds movements and speeds, or how signs such as “No walking on the grass” suggest a given pattern of walking. The second one is concerned with how movement is linked up with and implies continuous change. If a body’s movement and exaltation is reduced or slowed down, does the body then become immobile and still? Take ice, water and steam: these states give expression to three different attributes or conditions of what is considered to be one and the same chemical body. But in the transformation from one to the other, there is also an incorporeal transformation related to the possibilities of movement and change—between motion and rest—of what a body can do (Deleuze, Spinoza).

Slowing Down 

Ever since the first exhibition Body Worlds has been under attack from critics, ethicists, journalists and religious groups, who claim that the public exhibition of dead bodies should, for various reasons, be banned. In 2004, in response to such criticism, the Californian Science Centre commissioned an ethical review of the exhibition before taking the decision on whether and how to host Body Worlds. One of the more interesting points in this review was the proposition that “the exhibition is powerful, and guests need time to acclimate themselves” (6). As a consequence, it was suggested that the Science Center arrange an entrance that would “slow people down and foster a reverential and respectful mood” (5). The exhibition space was to be organized in such a way that skeletons, historical contexts and images would be placed in the beginning of the exhibition, the whole body plastinates should only be introduced later in the exhibition. 

Before my first visit to the exhibition, I wasn’t sure how I would react when confronted with these dead bodies. To be perfectly honest, the moments before entering, I panicked. Crossing the asphalt between the Manchester Museum of Science and the exhibition hall, I felt dizzy; heart pounding in my chest and a sensation of nausea spreading throughout my body. Ascending a staircase that would take me to the entrance, located on the third floor in the exhibition hall, I thought I had detected an odour—rotten flesh or foul meat mixed with chemicals. Upon entering I was greeted by a young man to whom I presented my ticket. Without knowing in advance that this first room had been structured in such a way as to “slow people down”, I immediately felt relieved as I realized that the previously detected smell must have been psychosomatic: the room was perfectly odourless and the atmosphere was calm and tempered. Dimmed lights and pointed spotlights filled the space with an inviting and warm ambience. Images and texts on death and anatomical art were spread over the walls and in the back corners of the room two skeletons had been placed. Two glass cases containing bones and tendons had been placed in the middle of the room and next to these a case with a whole body, positioned upright in ‘anatomically correct’ position with arms, hands and legs down. There was nothing gruesome or spectacular about this room; I had visited anatomical collections, such as that of the Hunterian Museum in London or Medical Museion in Copenhagen, which in comparison far surpassed the alleged gruesomeness and voyeurism. And so I realized that the room had effectively slowed me down as my initial state of exaltation had been altered and stalled by the relative familiarity of images, texts and bare bones, all presented in a tempered and respectful way.

Visitors are slowed down, but they are not still. There is no degree zero of movement, only different relations of speeds and slowness. Here I think it is useful to think of movement and change as it is expressed in Henri Bergson’s writings on temporality. Bergson frequently argued that the problem of Western metaphysics had been to spatialise movement, as in the famous example with Zeno’s arrow that—given that we think of movement as spatial—never reaches the tree towards which it has been shot. Bergson however did not refute the importance and practical dimensions of thinking through immobility; rather, immobility is the “prerequisite for our action” (Creative Mind 120). The problem occurs when we think away movement on behalf of that which we think of as still or immobile.

We need immobility, and the more we succeed in imagining movement as coinciding with the immobilities of the points of space through which it passes, the better we think we understand it. To tell the truth, there never is real immobility, if we understand by that an absence of movement. Movement is reality itself (Bergson, Creative Mind 119).

This notion of movement as primary, and immobility as secondary, gives expression to the proposition that immobility, solids and stillness are not given but have to be achieved. This can be done in several ways: external forces that act upon a body and transform it, as when water crystallizes into ice; certain therapeutic practices—yoga or relaxation exercises—that focus and concentrate attention and perception; spatial and architectural designs such as museums, art galleries or churches that induce and invoke certain moods and slow people down. Obviously there are other kinds of situations when bodies become excited and start moving more rapidly. Such situations could be, to name a few, when water starts to boil; when people use drugs like nicotine or caffeine in order to heighten alertness; or when bodies occupy spaces where movement is amplified by means of increased sensual stimuli, for example in the extreme conditions that characterize a natural catastrophe or a war.

Speeding Up 

After the Body Worlds visitor had been slowed down and acclimatised in and through the first room, the full body plastinates were introduced. These bodies laid bare muscles, tissues, nerves, brain, heart, kidneys, and lungs. Some of these were “exploded views” of the body—in these, the body and its parts have been separated and drawn out from the position that they occupy in the living body, in some cases resulting in two discrete plastinates—e.g. one skeleton and one muscle-plastinate—that come from the same anatomical body. Congruent with the renaissance anatomical art of Vesalius, all plastinates are positioned in lifelike poses (Benthien, Skin). Some are placed inside a protective glass case while others are either standing, lying on the ground or hanging from the ceiling.

As the exhibition unfolds, the plastinates themselves wipe away the calmness and stillness intended with the spatial design. Whereas a skeleton seems mute and dumb these plastinates come alive as visitors circle and navigate between them. Most visitors would merely point and whisper, some would reach towards and lean over a plastinate. Others however noticed that jumping up and down created a resonating effect in the plastinates so that a plastinate’s hand, leg or arm moved. At times the rooms were literally filled with hordes of excited and energized school children. Then the exhibition space was overtaken with laughter, loud voices, running feet, comments about the gruesome von Hagens and repeated remarks on the plastinates’ genitalia. The former mood of respectfulness and reverence has been replaced by the fascinating and idiosyncratic presence of animated and still, plastinated bodies. Animated and still? So what is a plastinate?

Movement and Form 

Through plastination, the body undergoes a radical and irreversible transformation which turns the organic body into an “inorganic organism”, a hybrid of plastic and flesh (Hirschauer 36). Before this happens however the living body has to face another phase of transition by which it turns into a dead cadaver. From the point of view of an individual body that lives, breathes and evolves, this transformation implies turning into a decomposing and rotting piece of flesh, tissue and bones. Any corpse will sooner or later turn into something else, ashes, dust or earth. This process can be slowed down using various techniques and chemicals such as mummification or formaldehyde, but this will merely slow down the process of decomposition, and not terminate it.

The plastination technique is rather different in several respects. Firstly the specimen is soaked in acetone and the liquids in the corpse—water and fat—are displaced. This displacement prepares the specimen for the next step in the process which is the forced vacuum impregnation. Here the specimen is placed in a polymer mixture with silicone rubber or epoxy resin. This process is undertaken in vacuum which allows for the plastic to enter each and every cell of the specimen, thus replacing the acetone (von Hagens, Body Worlds). Later on, when this transformation has finished, the specimen is modelled according to a concept, a “gestalt plastinate”, such as “the runner”, “the badminton player” or “the skin man”. The concept expresses a dynamic and life-like pose—referred to as the gestalt—that exceeds the individual parts of which it is formed. This would suggest that form is in itself immobility and that perception is what is needed to make form mobile; as gestalt the plastinated body is spatially immobilised, yet it gives birth to a body that comes alive in perception-movement. Once again I think that Bergson could help us to think through this relation, a relation that is conceived here as a difference between form-as-stillness and formation-as-movement:

Life is an evolution. We concentrate a period of this evolution in a stable view which we call a form, and, when the change has become considerable enough to overcome the fortunate inertia of our perception, we say that the body has changed its form. But in reality the body is changing form at every moment; or rather, there is no form, since form is immobile and the reality is movement. What is real is the continual change of form; form is only a snapshot view of a transition (Bergson, Creative Evolution 328, emphasis in original).

In other words there is a form that is relative to human perception, but there is “underneath” this form nothing but a continuous formation or becoming as Bergson would have it. For our purposes the formation of the gestalt plastinate is an achievement that makes perceptible the possibility of divergent or co-existent durations; the plastinate belongs to a temporal rhythm that even though it coincides with ours is not identical to it.

Movement and Trans-formation 

So what kind of a strange entity is it that emerges out of this transformation, through which organic materials are partly replaced with plastic? Compared with a living body or a mourned cadaver, it is first and foremost an entity that no longer is subject to the continuous evolution of time. In this sense the plastinate is similar to cryogenetical bodies (Doyle, Wetwares), or to Ötzi the ice man (Spindler, Man in the ice)bodies that resist the temporal logic according to which things are in constant motion. The processes of composition and decomposition that every living organism undergoes at every instant have been radically interrupted.

However, plastinates are not forever fixed, motionless and eternally enduring objects. As Walter points out, plastinated cadavers are expected to “remain stable” for approximately 4000 years (606). Thus, the plastinate has become solidified and stabilized according to a different pattern of duration than that of the decaying human body. There is a tension here between permanence and change, between bodies that endure and a body that decomposes. Maybe as when summer, which is full of life and energy, turns into winter, which is still and seemingly without life. It reminds us of Nietzsche's Zarathustra and the winter doctrine: 

When the water is spanned by planks, when bridges and railings leap over the river, verily those are believed who say, “everything is in flux. . .” But when the winter comes . . . , then verily, not only the blockheads say, “Does not everything stand still?” “At bottom everything stands still.”—that is truly a winter doctrine (Bennett and Connolly 150). 

So we encounter the paradox of how to accommodate motion within stillness and stillness within motion: if everything is in continuous movement, how can there be stillness and regularity (and vice versa)? An interesting example of such temporal interruption is described by Giorgio Agamben who invokes an example with a tick that was kept alive, in a state of hibernation, for 18 years without nourishment (47). During those years this tick had ceased to exist in time, it existed only in extended space. There are of course differences between the tick and von Hagens’s plastinates—one difference being that the plastinates are not only dead but also plastic and inorganic—but the analogy points us to the idea of producing the conditions of possibility for eternal, timeless (and, by implication, motionless) bodies. If movement and change are thought of as spatial, as in Zeno’s paradox, here they have become temporal: movement happens in and because of time and not in space. The technique of plastination and the plastinates themselves emerge as processes of a-temporalisation and re-spatialisation of the body. The body is displaced—pulled out of time and history—and becomes a Cartesian body located entirely in the coordinates of extended space. As Ian Hacking suggests, plastinates are “Cartesian, extended, occupying space. Plastinated organs and corpses are odourless: like the Cartesian body, they can be seen but not smelt” (15).

Interestingly, Body Worlds purports to show the inner workings of the human body. However, what visitors experience is not the working but the being. They do not see what the body does, its activities over time; rather, they see what it is, in space. Conversely, von Hagens wishes to “make us aware of our physical nature, our nature within us” (Kuppers 127), but the nature that we become aware of is not the messy, smelly and fluid nature of bodily interiors. Rather we encounter the still nature of Zarathustra’s winter landscape, a landscape in which the passage of time has come to a halt. As Walter concludes “the Body Worlds experience is primarily visual, spatial, static and odourless” (619).

Still in Constant Motion

And yet...Body Worlds moves us. If not for the fact that these plastinates and their creator strike us as gruesome, horrific and controversial, then because these bodies that we encounter touch us and we them. The sensation of movement, in and through the exhibition, is about this tension between being struck, touched or moved by a body that is radically foreign and yet strangely familiar to us. The resonant and reverberating movement that connects us with it is expressed through that (in)ability to accommodate motion in stillness, and stillness in motion. For whereas the plastinates are immobilised in space, they move in time and in experience. As Nigel Thrift puts it

The body is in constant motion. Even at rest, the body is never still. As bodies move they trace out a path from one location to another. These paths constantly intersect with those of others in a complex web of biographies. These others are not just human bodies but also all other objects that can be described as trajectories in time-space: animals, machines, trees, dwellings, and so on (Thrift 8).

This understanding of the body as being in constant motion stretches beyond the idea of a body that literally moves in physical space; it stresses the processual intertwining of subjects and objects through space-times that are enduring and evolving. The paradoxical nature of the relation between bodies in motion and bodies at rest is obviously far from exhausted through the brief exemplification that I have tried to provide here. Therefore I must end here and let someone else, better suited for this task, explain what it is that I wish to have said. 

We are hardly conscious of anything metaphorical when we say of one picture or of a story that it is dead, and of another that it has life. To explain just what we mean when we say this, is not easy. Yet the consciousness that one thing is limp, that another one has the heavy inertness of inanimate things, while another seems to move from within arises spontaneously. There must be something in the object that instigates it (Dewey 182).



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bodies; movement; exhibition; anatomy

Copyright (c) 2009 Sebastian Abrahamsson

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