Julia Kristeva’s famous essay Powers of Horror conceptualises the abject as that which “disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous” (4). While the social forms of the abject are clearly implicated here, Kristeva illustrates it primarily in corporeal terms, suggesting that filth, excrement, those things injected and expelled by the body, and disturb the epidermic surfaces of it (Grosz 244) are visible signifiers of the abject. In this semiotic schema, the corpse is the ultimate site of the abject because it is here that all meaning to the unity of body and mind, to the control of the border between inside and outside collapses (Kristeva 3). The corpse “signals the precarious grasp the subject has over its identity and bodily boundarie” (Grosz qtd. in Wright 198); the corpse excites fear and fascination as it represents the future for all of us- the unbecoming of the self. Kristeva’s views remind us how central the in tact body is to identity, and how much we seek reassurance in that which reifies the corps proper, despite our knowledge of its mutability. The exhibition of plastinated corpses, entitled The Amazing Human Body currently touring Australia, underscores secular society’s ongoing desire to gaze at that which we will eventually become, but constantly disavow. Unlike corpses that are preserved as life-like in the rituals of the funeral parlour, exhibitions of plastinated cadavers artistically frieze-frame corpses that are like and not like the body as we are invited to know and value it. In simultaneously exposing the inside and outside of bodies, and in posturing that which is both alien and familiar, the “amazing” human bodies on show fix an abject moment – one that does not “respect borders, positions, rules” (Kristeva 4).
Western civilization experiences extreme unease with the dead body which has resulted in all kinds of aesthetic interventions to negate its ‘reality’ as decaying matter. Post death, behind the scenes bio-scientific techniques preserve in the corpse a ‘life-likeness’; morticians cosmetically enhance the dead body on display so as not to disturb the living. In identifying the role of undertakers in the ritual disposal of the corpse, Glennys Howarth comments that when the “funeral director assumes custody of the corpse it is contaminated in the sense that it is a receptacle for disease and a symbol of mortality” (147). The task of the embalmer then is to revile this contamination, to “revitalize characteristics of the corpse” which will “enhance human-likeness, for example, facial colour and elasticity of skin.” Howarth’s descriptions identify the dead body as an abject site and the embalmer as artist whose task is to resurrect/reconstitute the corpse propre to “supply, not merely a representation, but the physical presence of the individual” as they were in life; a physical immortality as it were (Howarth 147).
Central to the embalmer’s and mortician’s art is an interesting paradox- the signification of death without physical corruption of the body. Howarth’s analysis of the “humanization techniques” in sustaining the fiction of living, points not only to “theatrical strategies” involved, but to the necessary concealment of the artist (the embalmer, the undertaker) in the process. The object is to re-create the fullness, not reveal the abjectness, of being. This preparation of the body for burial enacts what Michael Mendelson identifies as the “domestication of Death” which is to “assuage the unease Death provokes by making is something less than Death, by depicting it as an accessible and manageable place within the landscape that stretches out before us…”(191).
German anatomist, Gunther von Hagens in 1977 was the first to perfect a technique called plastination capable of preserving corpses for thousands of years. His travelling exhibition of plastinated corpses, Bodyworlds, has been shown in major international cities and has generated facsimiles such as The Amazing Human Body attracting thousands of visitors wherever they are staged. Ostensibly set up for morally instructive purposes, to “teach children about human physiology and help adults lead healthier lives” (brochure for The Amazing Human Body), these exhibitions incite a voyeuristic curiosity about the dead. The exhibited corpses are not cushioned in coffins, looking life-like; rather they often resemble the enamelled body models that have been manufactured for medical and anatomical purposes or the mummified remains, periodically unearthed, of people from an earlier age. The difference however is that we know that the plastinated bodies are in fact real bodies donated by ‘real’ people before their deaths (the sub-title of the exhibition reads –The Anatomical Display of Real Human Bodies). At one level von Hagens and others who have followed him, are, like undertakers, concealing the reality of the decaying body. Entering the exhibition one is assured that there is no odour and, unlike the autopsy table, there is no visible visceral messiness – no ‘blood and gore’. These bodies, like those in Howarth’s funeral parlour have been preserved (in this instance by the technique of plastination), and they too, like those composed for burial or cremation are artistically sculpted into shape.
(Plastination as described in the book distributed for sale, entitled The Amazing Human Body, involves Fixation, where “specimens are fixed with 5% formalin”; Dissection, where “specimens are dissected as required”; Dehydration, where “body fluid and fat are replaced by increasing concentrations of ethanol at room temperature, and then treated in a cold acetone bath”; Delipidation, where “Fat is replaced in a bath of warm acetone”; Vacuum Impregnation, where “acetone is replaced by plastic under a vacuum” and finally, Gas Curing, where “each structure is positioned and then gas cured” (10).)
Often these shapes mimic the actions of the living – for example men (and they are mostly male) running or skiing, riding bicycles or playing chess. The difference however is that the plastinated corpses invariably disclose their artifice; obviously stage managed and somewhat fake, they fail to preserve the life-likeness of the corpse propre, yet at the same time they are vaguely familiar and we know, as we discreetly test the air for odours, that they are/were ‘real’. (In his analysis of von Hagens’s Bodyworlds, Jose Van Dijck contends that “plastination is an illustrative symptom of postmodern culture” in that it reveals how “categories such as body vs model, organic vs synthetic/prosthetic, fake and real have become obsolete”. These binaries are increasingly interchangeable in the postmodern world of virtual reality (62).) In disturbing the boundaries between the real and the not-real, these plastinated cadavers engender the kind of ambiguity and in between-ness that Kristeva claims for the abject. The Bodyworlds website celebrates this ‘abject d’art’ in its promotional spiel in phrasing that is uncannily close to Kristeva’s descriptors. Spectators, the site claims, are “gripped with a deeply moving fascination for what has been fixed in this novel way on the border between death and decomposition” (http://www.bodyworlds.com/en/exhibitions/anatomy_everyone.html).
Other forms of aesthetic delivery of the cadavers in these exhibitions also highlight the abject. Many displays of bodies and body parts evince gross disturbance to the epidermic surface of the body, a visible and violent tampering with its wholeness, to reveal what lies beneath. Bodies have been sliced up, dissected, cut in half; skin has been removed to display cross sections through limbs, or flayed off to reveal central nervous systems; trunks have been cut out in horizontal planes and set out in neat racks that resemble meat trays, heads and trunks have been sliced in vertical planes, pressed between sheets of plastic and hung from hooks resembling the animal body parts in cold storage at the back of butchers’ shops. Perhaps most compelling is the display of an entire body skin complete with preserved subcutaneous tissue, revealing on close inspection, nipples and navel hole and occasionally body hair.
The skin is the most abject of sites; a reminder of the body’s permeable boundaries. (One of Gunther von Hagens’s plastinated cadavers is “Man with Skin on his Arms” featuring a body of a man holding up his entire skin, which van Dijck points out is an “imitation of a representation” of Vesalius’s copper engraving in Anatomia Humani Corporis (1685) of a man carrying aloft his own skin “as if he has just taken off his coat” (53).)
On a final point, the combination of physical, spatial and linguistic signs that constitute The Amazing Human Body; The Anatomical Display of Real Human Bodies potently, even amusingly, signifies the flimsiness and of the border between life and death, dirt and decontamination. In Kristeva’s words – “refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live” (3). The annotations accompanying the exhibits are pitched in pseudo scientific/bio-medical language to allay dread and anxiety about death by fixing the abject within an assuaging and ‘legitimate’ discursive frame, while the coffee and cake stall outside the walls of the exhibition space, offers us the comforting condiments for corporeal continuity.