Sex, Death, Science, And Art?

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | September 13, 2009 1:38 am

I’m sure some readers have already seen the famous bodies of plastinated dead people on display, but would you pay to watch them have sex? Gunther von Hagens and his wife Angelina Whalley hope so.

bodies.jpgThose already familiar with the couple’s Body Worlds exhibitions may or may not be surprised to learn of plans for a new show dedicated to sex. Sure the exhibit will undoubtedly make headlines around the world and stay in the public consciousness for a long time, but this is an extreme case where one person’s art is, well, something entirely different to another.

Will it be popular? Probably. Offensive to some? Absolutely. Stimulating to others? Let’s not go there…

What I’m most interested to find out is, when the ‘anatomy’ show rolls into town, would you consider going?

[H/T Jessica]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Media and Science

Comments (16)

Links to this Post

  1. » Body Sex Worlds Death Reference Desk | September 14, 2009
  1. magistramorous

    I’d consider going, but only because I’m the lowest of the low and, therefore, have no reputation to protect. Realistically, though, this show won’t work out. As everyone knows, no one of sound mind wants to think about corpses and sex and the same time: it’s a turn-off, duh!

  2. That would be a “no” (…but then I wouldn’t go see it even if the plasticized corpses were just sitting around playing gin rummy).

  3. I’m inclined to not go.

    magistramorous might be on to something. One of the types of meditation Buddhist nuns and monks have used to lessen their interest in sex is the contemplation of corpses. Of course, those are corpses in the natural state of decay so this simulated …. no, you can’t call it life, …. whatever mixed with sex might have a similar effect. Another Buddhist meditation that has a reported effect of lessening libido is the meditation on 32 parts of the body in The Book of Protection.

    Without having seen it, the idea has always sounded kind of gross to me. An ultimate invasion of privacy. I prefer to see things as they are, not as they are simulated, at least not unless it’s understood to be art.

  4. Erasmussimo

    Ethical considerations would preclude me from going. Unless the persons whose bodies are being used made an informed decision and signed a contract that specified exactly how their body would be used and the position in which it would be placed, I consider this use of their bodies unethical.

    Now consider this: you’re dying and these people have approached you offering to give your children a bunch of money if you agree to have your body plastinated and shown to the public forever in a position of coitus. Would YOU sign that contract?

  5. I’d only go if I were on a date.

  6. MagMa

    Ditto to Erasmussimo. My sentiments exactly. I’m a visual artist supporting all kinds of creativity, but feel freedom of expression should maintain respect for the self and the individual ‘right’ to control one’s own body.

  7. Anna K.

    Erasmussimo, a couple years ago I read that some of the bodies on display are those of Chinese prisoners. I doubt informed consent was obtained.

    I won’t be going.

  8. i went to see Body Worlds last summer, and will definitely go see this new exhibit should it come to my city. i get that the purpose is to show raw sexual function and is not intended to be perverse, and i don’t think it’s supposed to imitate pornography. while it inevitably links death and sex by utilizing actual deceased human bodies, the exhibit illustrates the life cycle beginning at conception.

    i’m not uncomfortable with sexuality either, so i’m not offended. plus, i also see the artistic merit as bodies as sculptures.

  9. Jon

    There is such a thing as bad taste and this is quite far into that territory.

  10. magistramorous

    Erasmussimo, I’d sign that contract: if not sex in life, then, at least, sex after death!

  11. My partner and I saw the BODIES exhibit when it first came to town (which I realize is a different exhibit than Body Worlds, but same idea). We very much enjoyed the display, I wish I had brought my sketchbook and had more time. We both have fairly busy schedules at the moment, but I would love to go see this if we can find the time to go. As an aside, we really should have eaten dinner before we went to the BODIES exhibit – seeing all of that muscle meat made us both hungry.. so we spent less time than we were able because we had to go grab some dinner. Which is admittedly pretty terrible, but it’s the truth. đŸ˜›

    Erasmussimo, yes I would absolutely consent to this. Though my current plans are to be cremated and turned into a giant concrete wiffle ball, which will be placed in the ocean for reef creation ( I feel that once I die, my body is mere flesh and my spirit no longer has a use for it. (Conversely I may die and that’s utterly the end, spirit included, so the body is still useless.) I’d rather that body be used for something positive, either to facilitate new life (by organ donation and/or through eternal reefs) or for education. I’d be honored.

  12. JakeR

    Filthy grandeur has the advantage of those who assume Dr. Von Hagens’ showings lack any value. Von Hagen’s materials are all donated by the deceased, who sign informed consent. I have seen the forms and do not recall any provision for limiting the artistic or scientific purpose for which the remains may be used. I understand several people sign up during every run of one of the two shows.

    Beside the educational value, the displays are also artistic, both in the subtlety of the materials, for example, an entire central nervous system from brain to tiny filaments at the periphery, and in the merit in not just posing bodies or parts, but in exposing the anatomy. There’s a certain esthetic appeal to the sensuous curve of a kidney, say, just as there’s horrific malformation in a cirrhotic liver. Further, the artist has taken liberties for the sake of exposition, such as cm-thick transparent, colored saggital slices of a man arranged in order perhaps 35 mm apart. If you can see the beauty in a face, why not in the skull under it? If you respect science, craftsmanship, and an artistic vision, you will find Von Hagens’ work interesting, perhaps compelling.

    Criminals’ corpses are used in one or more Chinese rip-offs of Von Hagens’ work, which I agree everybody should avoid for ethical reasons. Those shows don’t even plastinate the materials well–they leak.

  13. Anthony McCarthy

    I can’t see putting plasticized corpses in postures simulating sex as anything but repulsive. I would have to see what those permission slips spelled out. I’m not sure that I’d think even “informed consent” would make up for that.

    I didn’t think of it later but a husband and wife team is doing this? I don’t want to begin to tell you the questions that come to mind over that.

  14. Blogger

    It’s just another example of cheapening something beautiful for profit.

    Saying that it’s ‘artistic’ or ‘instructive’ is nothing more than justification.

  15. Caroline Bulleck

    I like Gunther von Hagens’ work and I just recently seen the exhibit in Philadelphia. I spent a solid three hours looking at the plastinated bodies without getting tired. It is a wonderful display of art and the human body stripped down to the muscle and bone. Nothing is censored and it is all meant to be educational. It was an enjoyable experience and I’m sad I sad I couldn’t have stayed longer. People who criticize von Hagens’ unique exhibit just can’t appreciate a new form of art. There have aalways been sculptures of people, and they’re nice and all; but plastination lets us have the person be that sculpture. It’s simply amazing and will add to educational means. After seeing the exhibit, there is no doubt in my mind that I want to donate my body now. Plastination is art in its truest form.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry.Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.comFor more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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