Joan Smith: A glimpse of immortality maybe, but it's still a freak show

The plastinated bodies are as educational as bearded ladies
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The Independent Online

For a culture in which death is supposed to be the final taboo, there's a lot of it around. A couple of weeks ago I went to see The Proposition, a movie set in the Australian outback which contains so many graphically violent murders that I spent most of it with my hands covering my eyes. I've read the novels of Patricia Cornwell, the phenomenally successful American crime writer whose books feature minutely detailed accounts of post-mortems. Of course, such deaths aren't real but last week, in several British newspapers, I read transcripts of the cockpit voice recorder of Flight 93, which revealed the final moments of one of the four aircraft hijacked on 11 September 2001.

The tape was played in an American court, which has to decide the fate of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker, and it was so harrowing that it reduced members of the jury to tears. It was uncomfortable even to read because, in spite of the light it throws on the courage of the passengers who defied the terrorists, it cannot help but encourage a prurient curiosity about people whose deaths are imminent. I'm uneasy about the motives that propel us to go over and over these events, experiencing other people's suffering vicariously; Flight 93 has already been the subject of at least one TV reconstruction and trailers for a movie version have just started showing in New York.

If all that wasn't enough, anyone who feels like an unusual outing in London can go and look at real corpses, courtesy of a new exhibition entitled Bodies - The Exhibition, which has just opened at Earls Court. In fact Bodies isn't a first, for it shows 22 corpses preserved by the plastination process invented by the German doctor Gunther von Hagens, who has already staged controversial exhibitions in this country. Plastination involves replacing the body's fluids with polymer, preventing decay and allowing corpses to be displayed in dramatic poses; the ones on display in London remind me of Titian's masterpiece The Flaying of Marsyas, in which naked men surround the flute player, who is being skinned alive as a punishment after defeating the god Apollo in a musical contest.

Titian's painting is crammed with writhing bodies, Marsyas appearing strangely calm as he undergoes this barbaric form of torture; the subject no doubt offered a challenging anatomical exercise for a Renaissance artist, but it's not something most of us would want to hang in our living-rooms. The real corpses in the Bodies exhibition are, by contrast, a lively bunch, shown playing sports, reading books and taking part in everyday activities. According to the organisers, its aim is to help us "learn to speak with ease about the body" and dispel "preconceived ideas and fears", as well as warning us to take better care of ourselves (the effect of smoking on human lungs is also shown).

Whatever the organisers claim, I can't help thinking it's a freak show, about as educational as the conjoined twins and bearded ladies who used to be on display at travelling fairs. Far from telling us anything about death, it does the opposite, suggesting the existence of a weird sort of after-life in which the dead carry on much as before or even act out their fantasies; one visitor said she had already volunteered to donate her body for plastination and wanted to be displayed riding on a dolphin, which made me wonder whether the mammal had given its consent. Like Cornwell's novels, in which corpses are collections of signs, ready to tell their story, plastinated bodies subliminally suggest that death isn't the end, offering even non-believers a freakish form of immortality.