Monday, July 4, 2016

Why So Happy?

Why So Happy? 
A review of Body Worlds: The Happiness Project

Upon first glance, the colorful, neon-pink bordered walls of Body Worlds: The Happiness Project, sparks a certain excitement, and, from the boldly-lettered title, superficially promises the audience an experience of “happiness.” Upon subsequent first steps, that promise is initially fulfilled as the audience is invited to watch a monochrome film about happiness and health. This expected introduction is met by an element of surprise, as upon entering the first exhibit, we see first-hand the anatomical control center that dictates our emotional experience: a glass case enclosing intact brains, coronal cross-sections of brain, and brains that have succumbed to stroke. The black, necrotic tissue of the stroked brain starkly contrasts the soft pinks and tans of its unblemished counterpart. Observing the organic matter that drives our calculated thoughts and actions is a stunning experience that is then troubled by the realization that our bodies can betray us without warning. We are at complete mercy of roughly 1300 grams of squishy tissue.

Both observational and interactive displays speckle the walls of each section. There are videos of collaged stop-motion animation, dangling shapes with faces and writing, as well as mounted cross-sections of various organs succumbed to disease (the opposite of “happiness,” one would think). Eventually the viewer realizes that these organs, alongside educational material scattered throughout the room, are there to caution us. Behaviors we practice to attain short-lived happiness such as drug use, overeating, and excessive drinking, can quickly lead to organ failure and death. The idea of “happiness” has taken a nasty turn.

The most notable and dramatic displays are those of full plasticized bodies posed in realistic positions and presented in various layers of dissection. As a student who has taken cadaver anatomy courses, I have worked with cadavers lying in the “anatomical” position: Supine (face up), limbs laying by the side, face covered. After preservation, these bodies sometimes seemed modeled, fake. The color to their muscles has faded to a rusty yellow— the remnants of fat which degrade at a much slower rate. Yet the bodies displayed in Body Worlds were much different as they went through a process known as “plastination.” Developed by German anatomist Gunther von Hagens, the process involves two major steps: first, the body is embalmed with acetone to replace the water-based fluids; second, a liquid polymer is forced into each cell via a vacuum. This retains original coloring of cells and halts bodily decomposition.The displayed, plastified bodies have colors more vibrant and features more characteristic of the living than those preserved by formaldehyde. These are simply more humanlike. Equipped with eyebrows, fake  eyes, facial expressions, and even names, the bodies regain human characteristics so often lost in the preservation process, and as a result can engage the viewers on a more personal level. 
Clockwise, from top left: "Pedaling Woman", "The Saxophone Player", Collage in stairwell, Necrosis of brain tissue post-stroke

In one area, a dancing couple commands the stage. In another, “The Steersman” commands a ship’s steering wheel. “The Pedaling Woman,” in a different room, is divided into three thick slices which have been especially cut for a three-dimensional impression. Her organs protrude from different parts of the body, with matching gaps opposing the protrusion that show us the complexity of our inner selves. “The Saxophone Player” bends over backwards, playing what we can only imagine to be a beautiful piece of music. “Woman on a Swing” is delicately balanced on a wooden swing, seductively gazing at viewers. She shows the perfect interaction of muscles and the beauty of physical and conceptual balance; she is particularly striking as there is no glass barrier between her body and those of the audience. There are even adjacent swings: the audience can join the post-mortem “fun” and find their own balance by her side. It is here where our notion of human and deceased is blurred. No longer is there a distinct separation between these displays and our own selves. Though by rule we are prohibited, we can imagine reaching out to hold her hand as we swing.

Most surprisingly, the bodies at Body World are not the center of the exhibit; rather, they gather our fleeting attention and focus it toward the center of the room where glass-encased organs command the spotlight. This makes the central educational displays of disease and detailed slides most striking. We have just considered our similarity with death, and now, damaged hearts, stroked brains (in image), broken bones, and ruptured arteries stare us squarely in the face. Adjacent colorful displays offer advice we may use as a toolkit in delaying these inevitable processes. Between these displays, which are separated by floor, a collage of positive phrases line the stairwells. The purpose of these seem to provide a cheap method of entertainment, a means to sustain audience engagement as we navigate from one section to the next. However, the message of these collages fit the theme and provide at least something interesting to look at as we transition from one exciting display to another via a bland, grey staircase. In my opinion, brightly painted walls to complement each collage would have been a better alternative.

The use of multi-media—from videos, to damaged organs, to actual bodies propped in realistic positions—is a compelling and effective means to a hopefully actionable end. Part of the exhibit aspires to enthrall, entertain, and frighten us, while the other part serves a teaching function, advising us on healthy behavioral modifications upon our exit. This lends a greater sense of hope to an otherwise morbid exhibit.

By showcasing the disturbing, the awesome, and the inspiring aspects of the human body, Body Worlds aims to inspire action through awareness. A new appreciation for what our bodies do, and the applied knowledge of both harmful and beneficial capacities of our actions cultivates a sense of urgency. Along with the lack of distinction between alive and dead, Body Worlds helps us to realize that, although we will eventually perish, we must care for our living body to achieve a healthier, fulfilling, and “happier” life. 

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