“From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them, and that is eternity.”
The relationship between death and beauty is an ancient one. The idea that death and the dead body are considered to be beautiful is manifested in many art works. Notably Damien Hurst’s For the Love of God sculpture consisting of 8,601 diamonds encrusted into a platinum cast of an 18th century human skull. It symbolises the mortality of the observer and man’s victory over death and decay. It cost £14 million to produce and allegedly sold for £50 million to an unknown buyer. Here, we see the body commoditised once it is no longer living and soulless. Does this make it more moral?
In Dr von Hagen’s Body Worlds exhibition whole dead plastinated human bodies are displayed in lifelike poses and dissected to show the internal structures of the body. Dr von Hagen’s plastination technique has allowed whole bodies to be preserved and exhibited in life-like poses. I find this method of producing art work both intriguing and unsettling. The exhibition has been met with controversy where many groups, especially religious, believe that this defies respecting the deceased body. Yet the exhibition is extremely popular and has received more than 26 million visitors.
Contrary to traditional methods of preserving the dead body in preparation for the afterlife, like Hurst’s sculpture, Dr von Hagen’s art portrays the human body challenging and rebelling against death. It evokes a vitality, strength and spirit of the body yet ironically bodies are lifeless and preserved in pristine condition. In contrast to viewing the dead body as beautiful, Body Worlds presents life as beautiful through the medium of death. Should the dead body be mourned or admired and celebrated? Does commercially exhibiting one’s death disrespect one’s life? Does such artwork demonstrate man’s triumph over human decay or encourage it? Perhaps we could tease these questions out in one of London’s Death Cafes where the objective is ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’.