Günther Von Hagens


In April 2000, in the “Mais!” Booklet of “Folha de S. Paulo”, I published the article “The forms of death”, which published and explained “plastination”, a new technique for the conservation of corpses developed a long time ago. a few decades by the German anatomist Gunther von Hagens at the Heidelberg Institute of Anatomy in Germany. Through this method, von Hagens replaces dead body organic substances with plastic materials (silicone, epoxy and polyester resin), which allows wetted body materials to acquire plasticity, ie remain soft, odorless and dry.
Undoubtedly, Von Hagens came up with a great idea: the development of a conservation technique that allows the macrocosmic study of corpses without the nuisance odors or changes in tissue tones normally produced by traditional conservation chemists. The anatomo-scientific studies of the human body could then be more didactic and enlightening.

Another innovation, pointed out in that article, was the introduction of the lay public in this scientific circuit, as von Hagens decided to transform such study material into exhibition pieces organized under the title of “Worlds of the Body”.

The first exhibition in 1995 took place in Japan, attracting thousands of visitors. In Europe, the opening of “Worlds of the Body” took place in Mannheim in 1997, also surpassing the anticipated success in visitor numbers. Since that time, the exhibitions have set the record for more than 13 million visitors, most attracted by the fascination that the sight of the corpse provokes and the curiosity to know beyond the surface of the skin.

After visiting the exhibition in Cologne, Germany in 2000, and interviewing the anatomist, I wrote: “More than an anatomy class, the result produced by the German doctor's work is a desecration or resacralization of the human body. and also, according to him, an attempt to democratize their forms and functions.
the lay visitor, the effect is scary. Curious, impressed faces wander through the great hall where more than 200 pieces are on display, including sliced bodies in their horizontal and vertical extensions and healthy and diseased organs, which are shown in detail with their transparencies, openings and plasticities. ”

Apparently, Von Hagens had discovered not only a successful new technique in embalming corpses, but also a gold mine, since, in addition to the value of entering body exhibitions, the anatomist receives for a body embalmed by plastination 75,000. approximately R$ 280 thousand.

And just as euros fell, so began to rain criticism and discussions about corpses and exhibitions, starting with ethics and religion.

Breaking the barriers of a scientific and artistic universe by exposing the corpse as a work of art, the anatomist becomes more radical when, in November 2002, in London, he performed, at London's Atlantis Gallery, the first public autopsy, a controversy presentation for about 500 people. Accused of being a controversial and illegal show, Von Hagens at the time defended himself, claiming that what he does is in the name of a democratization of anatomy, that is, he popularizes a practice used in schools.

Another reading of the anatomist's work is that it turned into a police case. This is a complaint made by the German magazine “Der Spiegel” on 19 January 2004 in the form of a 12-page article entitled “Dr. Death. The macabre affairs of the corpse exhibitor Gunther von Hagens ”. The article accused the anatomist of not making clear the rules of this work, ie the provenance of the material he uses and how he builds / sculpts the bodies. Der Spiegel's cover story denounced the smuggling, misuse and unscrupulous commercialization of human bodies by the German doctor in the name of his currently exhibited double-display cadaver exhibitions in Frankfurt and Singapore.

Featuring photos showing employees manipulating corpses in Dalian, China, according to the magazine, “one of its three cadaver factories” (the other two are in Heidelberg, Germany, and Bischkek, also in China), citing documents that were raised through research by the magazine, as well as documenting through bank statements and statements by the anatomist and his employees, the story accused von Hagens of building an “authentic human cadaver market, which operates under the simplest rules of the capitalism: the purchase of cheap raw material, its cost-effective manufacture and profitable marketing. ”

Translated into corpses, according to “Der Spiegel”, in a document raised in November 2003, “there are 647 complete bodies”.

In addition, the document "states that 3909 body parts such as legs, hands or penis were listed, and 182 fetuses, embryos and newborns were cataloged, with serial numbers, size, height and gender."

When asked where do corpses come from or what parts of them come from, the magazine answered: "Gunther von Hagens doesn't just work with body donations, he takes the bodies he can." The story went on, accusing this “speculator of the dead” of selling cheap, in addition to donated bodies, corpses of Chinese prisoners executed in a military camp near his Dalian factory. The article also accused von Hagens of deceiving visitors from his exhibitions that he believed to be observing a true and complete corpse and thus being enlightened about his own body. According to Der Spiegel, nothing more false!

The magazine described that this modern Dr. Frankenstein, as in an assembly line, is taking off the shelves of his factories legs, arms and other parts or organs more perfect or adequate to replace those defective, small or little muscled corpse that is assembling. .

Showing how von Hagens's kitchen works, “Der Spiegel” wrote that “even the 'quality' of the corpse is thoroughly recorded. Corpse No. 03MI0077 serves, for example, only as raw material; For this 'whole male body' with a height of 1.66 meters, it was found: 'lack of left eye, damaged feet and hands'. On the other hand, the first material was recorded as corpse 03FI093: female, height of 1.67 meters, good muscles, European origin. Suitable for exposure ”.

The article ended with the prophetic von-hagenian view that the world will only recognize the grandeur of its work after its death and its own plastination.


Of life and death

What anatomist Gunther von Hagens does, “the plastination of dead human bodies,” can be seen from a double point of view.

On the one hand, this procedure reveals a little of the problematic relationship of man with life, its mechanisms and its history. Behind this new technology is a biological power, a realm of life, body, and knowledge that appeared in the Western world as early as the eighteenth century. According to Michel Foucault (“Right of death and power over life” in “History of Sexuality”, 1988, Ed. Graal), this was a transformation movement linked to the development of capitalism. It is the development of a scientific power-knowledge that transforms life and the perspective from which one looks at life and, consequently, death.

Through the effects wrought by this knowledge, including a reclassification of life and body, or a knowing power over body and life, one observes how science appropriates the rights over body and life, subverting the ancients. and traditional systems that controlled it, such as that power exerted in the past by the legal, religious, or state areas, among others.

Such mastery enables the body to be known today as it is or as it is intended to be. This means that sovereignty is now exercised over what is and can be body and life, which can be mirrored in new biotechnologies developed for the conservation and care of the body, life, death, and creation. or the transformation of life.
Thus, Gunther von Hagens's process of plastination of corpses also reflects this present moment of mastery by man of his and other bodies, of life and death. The new possibilities for reading and manipulating the body (living and dead) seem to be a global phenomenon, which we all, in different contexts, make, seek to know and consume.
Technologies for the transformation of the body, such as those developed by plastic surgery, replacement of organs or parts of the body, such as those undertaken in transplants, prosthetic insertions, or biogenetic and pharmacological knowledge that allows the control and artificial creation of life or its extension are other examples of the historical moment we build and live.

This same process of manipulation of body and life, which is in science and technology created by it, promotes, on the other hand, the transformation of this body into an object, a thing or commodity, as the body transforms itself. in matter that consumes itself and is consumed: the corpses “plastinated” by dr. von Hagens, for example, exhibited in museums, were conceived to, in addition to enabling a macrocosmic study of the human body, to be consumed as an image and sold as a commodity. After all, the large number of visitors to the corpse exhibitions point out that we are crowding the museums, that we want to be turned inside out, or that we have some fascination with morbid or grotesque.

In other words, what, according to Foucault, was the object of knowing for the clinical analysis of many diseases, that is, the corpse, became, in the exhibitions “Worlds of the body”, in a show, or in an expensive one. bizarre object of consumption.

But "Worlds of the Body," according to the German magazine, points to another finding: that these corpses were secretly assembled. It means that what Von Hagens presents as a “democratization of anatomy”, that is, as a scientific and anatomical study of the human body, is a montage, since it is an object made up of the sum of parts of human bodies, unilaterally defined by him to please the public. This manipulation of the human body raises an ethical issue, the risks of misuse of the human body, and a legal issue, which is its commercialization - problems that the article published in “Der Spiegel” denounces and criticizes.

Pointing out the fake, the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper published a clarification last January 28 of the professors of the Institute of Anatomy of the University of Heidelberg, who said they were distanced from the corpse exhibition project, claiming that what Von Hagens presents It is far from being a didactic and acceptable information. According to the story, "Those people who seek exposure because they are really interested in human anatomy pay to be deceived."

Since the ethical values of a civilization are constructions determined by time, culture, habits, and beliefs, it is clear that a resizing of the ideas of body, life, and death has been taking place alongside that of ethical and moral values. that accompany them.

Thus, despite the timely technological innovation and bold expansion of anatomical knowledge of the human body, expanding its domain to art and the lay public, it seems that Von Hagens's biggest problem has been not revealing the history of the restoration of corpses. not having made clear the rules of origin and construction of bodies, so that the idea of exposing corpses is restricted to the idea of the spectacle and the conception of big business, given our fascination with ourselves.

Text from: Maria Teresa Santoro

PhD in communication and semiotics from the Technical University of Berlin and professor of communication and language at the São Judas Tadeu University (SP).