Bodies in art, art in bodies

Ewen Callaway compares two exhibits that feature animal anatomy in prominent ways Callaway:flayed:2012. “Animals Inside Out”, at the Natural History Museum, London, features the work of German anatomist Gunther von Hagens, famous for his “plastination” technique. A career retrospective from British artist Damien Hirst is showing at Tate Modern, also in London. As Callaway reflects, both shows feature preserved animals, and Hirst suffers in comparison:

Many of Hirst's best-known pieces are tame by comparison. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), a 4-metre-long, formaldehyde-fixed tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier), floats in its vitrine with skin like rumpled denim, misshapen fins and a gaping mouth revealing rounded, un-razor-like teeth. The iconic Mother and Child Divided (1993) features a cow and calf, each halved lengthways, hovering in four formalin-filled glass cases. The work bears a fleeting similarity to von Hagens' creations until you walk between the split carcasses. Instead of brilliant reds and purples, the wilted organs are a dull grey.
It is tempting to say that the British artist could learn a thing or two from the idiosyncratic German about preserving animals, but that would miss the point of these particular pieces: that death is ugly, awful, inevitable, and to doll it up is misguided.

Reflecting on this, I would say that Hirst is giving his rich clients something that any scientist can walk behind the doors of a museum and see. Sure, these animals are pickled on a massive scale, but the preparation is uninspired. It’s a “cabinet of curiosities” approach, meant to impress the viewer of the strangeness but not convey new information about the animals themselves. In this sense, the animals are wasted on the viewer.

Von Hagens’ approach is more populist. His technique brings new information out of the anatomy, making what would be invisible to the average viewer suddenly visible. The scale is similarly massive, and some people would use “spectacle” as a pejorative for the show. But if we take the old French criterion for great art, plaisir et instruire, von Hagens wins by comparison.