Arts: Body art tests limits of taste

A grotesque exhibition of human corpses is Germany's artistic event of the year. Imre Karacs reports on Mannheim's "Bodyworlds".

A six-month old foetus, eyes half open, floats at the end of an umbilical cord out of an open womb. A tiptoeing male athlete stares straight ahead. A circle has been cut out of his forehead to offer a view of the brain. On the right side of his body, deep gashes expose the flesh. On the left, the scalpel has peeled away the skin, allowing the lung, the stomach, bones and tendons to hang out.

Nothing is left to the imagination at the Museum of Technology in Mannheim, where 200 human bodies preserved in plastic and dissected in accordance with their creator's whim, have been stretching the boundaries of artistic freedom since October. Condemned as "immoral" by the Christian churches and denounced by the local government, the show has, never the less, been a great success.

Hardly anyone ever visited the turbines and steam engines that are on permanent display in a concrete-and-glass building at the edge of the south German city. But the "Runner", the "Transparent Body" and "Pregnant Woman" have attracted nearly a quarter of a million people to the ultimate voyeuristic experience.

"But is it art?", ask the critics, "or merely post-modernist entertainment in the worst possible taste". The answer, according to Gunther von Hagens, the creator, is neither. It's all in the name of science.

Seventeen years ago, Mr von Hagens left his job as anatomist, filled a garage in Heidelberg with fresh corpses, and got to work on his project to develop a novel technique for preserving human tissue. The "plastination" process he perfected immerses the body into ice-cold acetone in order to expel water and fat, and then replaces soft tissue with tough silicone resin or plastic.

The results are stunning. The "specimens" can be manipulated and frozen in motion choreographed by Mr von Hagen. Like the inhabitants of Pompeii, the exhibits are thus captured in some mundane task: answering telephones, leaping through the air, or even giving birth.

Immorality beckons, to Mr von Hagen as well as his subjects. On their way out of the museum, visitors can sign up for plastination. The ledger containing the names of volunteers is filling up fast.