Sunday, August 26, 2012

Skeletal Obsessions

The mammalian body, a tight, gnarled structure, has always been an object of fascination, and sustenance, for many species.  The human body, a late addition to the genre, has a special space in the kingdom, with its bipedal outline, twitching thumbs, and rippled forehead.

The innovation of a particular German genus of skeleton, Gunther von Hagens, in devising a way to preserve the blunt form of a corpse, has allowed an army of spectres to wander from city to city for the entertainment of ordinary folk.

The 'bodies expo', as it is occasionally known, is an exercise in ancient macabre, something out of Edgar Allen Poe, but sanitised with billboards, deep-voiced jingles, and family queues.  There is and always will be a deep interest in the sculpture of the human form, inside and out.

The Olympics has been if anything an opportunity to look askance at the extreme limits to which the human body can be taken, and displayed.  Take a look at this cover shoot of the Williams sisters to see what I mean.

But once mammals move beyond life, the usual practice is to put their inanimate form out of sight via burial, cremation, etc.  And indeed, as Stephen Asma writes here, the bodies expo phenomenon has led to a religious-philosophical debate about the ultimate dignity of the human form.

My favourite part of the Asma piece was a bizarre quote from a New York curator, Joanna Eberstein:

 "My working theory on this idea is that artifacts that flicker on the edges of death and beauty—or any other categories that seem to be in binary opposition—create a certain frisson, an ontological confusion," she said. "I think for some people this confusion and flicker creates pleasure, for others anxiety, and for some, an enjoyable mixture of the two. I definitely find that frisson very exciting."

She cultivates an obsession among some hipsters for old wax medical models and assorted anatomy, and curates mammalian forms like an old butterfly collector pinning his latest netting to the cork board.

The danse macabre, a rustic dance with personified death, or personified plague, seems to a add a titillation to Eberstein's flock.  Or could the whole thing be a weird and distinctly modern attempt at more primitive worship?

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