“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!” – Hunter S. Thompson
Today I attended Gunter von Hagen’s The Happiness Project exhibition In Amsterdam. I knew of Van Hagen from his previous plasticisation of the body and had watched some of his television series Autopsy: Life and Death with equal trepidation and fascination. On this occasion I went on my own as my 11 and 8 year old declined my invitation, and although there was a part of me that was apprehensive and sided with my kids belief that there could be something a bit macabre and a touch irreverent in the idea of it all, I booked my ticket anyway.
I headed to the cities busselling tourist centre. The building was between a shop dedicated to enormous cheese wheels maturing and a souvenir shop selling all kinds of magnets; from Vincent van Gough paintings to windmills and Dutch girls. This was definitely an exhibition aimed at the tourists market. I secured my bike out the front and went on in.
The exhibition started on the top floor of the building and worked its way down through each level to the bottom again. On entering, there were some statements about happiness and the human quest for it. I wasn’t convinced that this was no more than a marketing angle to justify some grotesque voyeurism; my armour of cynicism seemed well secured. However, walking around the space I was fascinated by the insides of the bodies, spliced in every possible plane and angle, including a whole body laterally sliced in three sections. I kept thinking this was once an actual person. I was amazed at the incredible intelligence and beauty of the human body unpeeled, muscles, tendons and bones working together in bio-mechanical genius; the equal sophistication and simplicity of our organ systems, and the body’s capacity for resilience. I was surprised how practical it was, full of lots of learning about how the body works. In truth it wasn’t macabre, rather more educational, and I left knowing a little bit more than I did before.
The experience stayed with me, and I meditated on the residue of this experience all afternoon feeling a little out of sorts. It seemed to have brought up many questions to which I had no answers. Why had I been so cautious and wanting to disapprove? As someone who sees the benefit in organ donation, I’m intrigued by the unease I was left with after this experience. There is part of me that loves the flippant nature of using our bodies this way; there is equally a secret part that thinks it a touch sacrilegious.
I wonder how differently do we view the body while alive compared to when we are dead. There is a consecration of the body once it has died and I guess that unsettling feeling I had all day, is the realisation that perhaps I do not hold such ’sacredness’ towards my own body in life? I can neglect it nutritionally and abuse it physically, let alone verbally.
Could it be that our elevation of the body in death juxtaposes our disconnection to it in life? Could there be some truth that it is easier to cherish a life once over than to seize the moments as they are being lived?
If we truly lived more connected within our bodies would we be less squeamish about the body after death. If we viewed the body as a vehicle in which our life force lived would we be more willing to put our name on the organ donation register or donate the body to science?
If I embodied the words of Hunter S. Thompson; would I chuckle at the thought of Von Hagen plasticising my body in some contorted way, immortalising me with a hint of cheek forever more? There is something that seems clichéd or twee in the poses he makes, and the artificialness of the plastic. It makes something previously degradable into something that will take thousands if not tens of thousands of years to break down completely. Does the thought of being forever captured in time challenge my deep yearning to live comfortably in the transients of a moment?
I am curious about the individuals who put their hand up for this and wonder at their relationship to their body and death? I am especially curious about the lives of the people who chose to donate their bodies to the Gunter von Hagen? While there has been some controversy around consent with some of the subjects over the years, this exhibition explicitly declared the consent of all donated bodies.
Many of the bodies were frozen in positions seemingly manipulated, artificial and contorted, playing a saxophone, driving a boat; even a couple engaged in sexual intercourse. We are supposed to have fun in our bodies while alive, so why not after our energy has passed out of it too? I kept asking myself would I donate my body for this? And if not why not?
I have long been an advocate of organ donation and the thought that after my death my organs could help someone else live a longer or healthier life is an appealing prospect. According to Donate life website only 1-2% of people die in hospital in a way that means they are eligible for organ donation. In 2016, 503 donators gave helped 1447 people. Approximately 1440 people are on the Australian Organ transplant waiting list. One organ donator can help 10 people.
Registering to be an organ donor in Australia is easy and can be done on line at register.donatelife.gov.au. Donating your body to science is a bit more complicated and you need to register with the individual organisation you want to be the recipient of your cadaver. This could be an individual University or registered Research Institution. All have strict criteria and guidelines around the process. A body cannot be accepted unless it has been authorised by the deceased prior to death. Most will cremate the body after it has been used and return the ashes to the family.
Back to my musing on the exhibition… ultimately I guess it achieved its objective. Sneaking up on me, it definitely stirred up questions about meaning and life, which will always include reflection on happiness. I am left with a renewed understanding of how exquisite and important my body is and a commitment to treating it better.