The body shop of horrors

Spectacular Bodies | Hayward Gallery, London
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Spectacular Bodies at the Hayward Gallery is certainly not for the squeamish. It traces the history of the meeting between art and science over the human frame from Leonardo to now: anatomical dissection and obstetrics explore the body, while the soul puts in an appearance under the guise of physiognomy, phrenology, and the study of hysteria and the insane.

Spectacular Bodies at the Hayward Gallery is certainly not for the squeamish. It traces the history of the meeting between art and science over the human frame from Leonardo to now: anatomical dissection and obstetrics explore the body, while the soul puts in an appearance under the guise of physiognomy, phrenology, and the study of hysteria and the insane.

Its working title was Know Thyself. This exhortation, although pagan in origin, was taken up by Renaissance anatomists and became an expression of the aspiration to reveal, as the 16th-century anatomist Vesalius put it, "the Great Architect's domicile of the soul".

These themes - body and soul, spectacle and intimate self-knowledge - run parallel in the exhibits and their possible interpretation. It is no coincidence that today's operating theatre, like the historical anatomical theatre, still uses the name for a building intended for dramatic - and public - spectacles. This aspect of the exhibition has drawn criticism from the anti-abortion groups Life and the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, as well as some Christian groups. Included alongside engravings and models of dissections of the gravid uterus, for instance, is a still-born baby preserved in a jar, which is believed to date back to the 18th century.

While its scope testifies to the years of preparation, the timing of the opening is delicate. We still await the findings of enquiries into retention of paediatric organs at the Bristol Royal Infirmary and at Liverpool's Alder Hey Hospital, and it is just two years since changes to the law regarding the status of the body as property (after the artist Anthony-Noel Kelly's conviction for theft of human anatomical specimens for use in mould-making for his sculpture).

Dr Richard Ashcroft, from the Department of Medical Ethics at Imperial College, London, a contributor to the exhibition audio-guide, observes that the purpose of pathological exhibits in medical museums is "very unilinear. This is why you are here; this is what you are to go away learning from this." Showing such items in an art gallery, however, places them in a completely different context where, as Dr Ashcroft points out, "you don't have that degree of control over the viewer's experience, and people will take different things away from it."

Artists have, in increasing numbers over recent years, been drawn to medical representation. In John Isaacs' self-portrait A Necessary Change of Heart, he depicts himself in wax as a mangled and bloody corpse laid semi-prone on an open white table. Set in the exhibition's context of a room full of historical écorchés (models representing anatomical dissections), it brings the contemporary enquiry into the nature of medical displays vividly to view.

Isaacs says that he made the piece "as a metaphor for the acquisition of knowledge. A self-portrait which somehow could embody the feeling of having so much of yourself appropriated or explained by history, by science... as an analogy between the historical development of anatomy and the colonial history of Europe. As people discovered countries they named them after themselves, and also they were naming organs after themselves. You have that sense of exploration, objectification and colonisation through the whole exhibition."

Isaacs's sculpture is, in his own words, "freshly cut, and it's in your face: it's not behind glass, it's breathing the same air, and it's made to look like meat." As such, A Necessary Change of Heart left this viewer feeling decidedly wobbly, not least because of the way in which it does vividly contextualise - with its grim meatiness and inherent violence - the reality behind the classicising aesthetic of the historical écorchés, some of which derive from the bodies of hanged criminals, flayed within hours of death and posed while still warm in order that moulds might be made for the purpose of study.

But if Isaacs's self-portrait left me feeling wobbly, how did it affect his father, Dr Peter Isaacs (a consultant physician at the Victoria Hospital in Blackpool) when he first encountered it at the private view?

"It was very unsettling to see the body cut up in that way. It wasn't just a dissection... it was a body that had been subjected to some kind of trauma. The leg had been partly cut off and the jaw had been removed; it looked partly like a blast injury and partly a dissection. I know John does make casts of his hands and feet - I recognised them as his hands. It's a strange mixture of damage, accident and the fact that bits of him were recognisable... like identifying a found body."

Another interpretation of A Necessary Change of Heart comes from the medical historian Dr Ruth Richardson (author of Death, Dissection and the Destitute, a study of the background and consequences of the 1832 Anatomy Act). "To me the work encapsulates what is happening to the dead body in our own time: every ligament , every piece of bone, of retina, is reused when it can be. It reminds me of cases I have heard of where 70-odd pieces are taken from the corpse and marketed."

She reveals that a commercial value has returned to the human corpse, unprecedented since the 1832 Anatomy Act. The trade in transplantable organs, from the Third World to our own, she maintains, echoes the imbalances in social and economic power that prevailed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and led to a criminal trade in corpses for sale to anatomy schools for dissection.

It is to questions of power - mixed with the quest for knowledge, and the dilemma of necessary humanity versus clinical dissociation - that these exhibits repeatedly appeal. Questions that contribute to the complex contemporary conditions which encourage young artists to take up the subject of "the body" today.

Dr Ashcroft finds "a sense of learning tied up with power, tied up with emotional response" in Jan van Neck's Anatomy Lesson of Dr Frederick Ruysch of 1683, at the same time reminding us that "scientific work... is supposed to be neutral and dispassionate." He is struck by the similarity with today's dissection lessons in medical school, when a junior surgeon demonstrates to a small group. However, today's medical students who encounter human dissection for the first time are significantly younger than their historical counterparts portrayed. Dr Ashcroft traces the dilemma between clinical detachment and personal emotion to the first dissections in the early weeks of medical training, and attributes his impulse to enter medical ethics to his awareness of this dilemma.

"We'd see the students just before they would meet their cadaver for the first time. Most had never encountered a dead body before. They were always rather quiet at this stage, and not admitting to any worry: how it was going to be in the dissection room and what it was going to smell like, or what the body was going to feel like to touch, and how they were going to deal with seeing the face of a dead person?"

He found that many students who did find the experience distressing "would deny it, because they already have this idea that the good doctor does not display 'inappropriate emotion.'"

Dr Isaacs, who teaches at the Victoria Hospital, concurs. While acknowledging the need for post mortems in order to improve diagnostic accuracy, he believes that human dissection so early in medical training, and while students are so young, can harden them "to the sight of a dead body, and cutting it up and displaying all the nerves and vessels and so on. Perhaps," he suggests, "it would be better to increase, rather than to reduce your humanity: rather than distancing yourself from Day One as far as possible from your interaction with another person - which may lead to a feeling of power and detachment."

As his son's work so palpably demonstrates, the sense of personal excitement bound up in the exploration and understanding - the naming and mapping - of the human body as territory, can also lead to abuse of power. There is no denying the benefits that research into the human body can and does provide, but the exhibits in Spectacular Bodies also remind us of the dangers of appropriation and plunder.


Spectacular Bodies, Hayward Gallery, South Bank. London SE1 until 14 January