Bone Clean – Ginger Ko
I started writing Bone Clean after I went to view the Body Worlds exhibit when it reached Chicago. It had remained seemingly for months at one of the downtown museums and for weeks beforehand, and for weeks long after, drivers along Lake Michigan passed the unremitting streetlamp banners that displayed grotesque pictures of the plastinated bodies in various poses. Riding a bike. Posed as mother and daughter (or desexed father and desexed son), both pointing off into the distance. Suspended mid-leap/-kick with a basketball or football. All with their bright red ropey musculature and artistically flayed tendons and tissues.
I entered the halls of the exhibit expecting some kind of overwhelming smell or some other pervasive signal of decay. Instead, the museum spotlights were bright and beautiful, throwing the skinned bodies into the type of colossal beauty that serves antiquities and dinosaur skeletons. Some of the bodies were unnaturally stretched or enlarged, somehow standing ten feet tall and looming above the other bodies on pedestals at artistically pleasing intervals. These bodies are no longer bodies which are subject to decay. They are, in fact, not even preserved in time, their deterioration arrested. They have been converted to something else altogether via the plastination process, a mechanism of replacing all the living liquids of a body with plastics that are then hardened into shape. The bodies that go through this process transform into plastinates, a name that is given to all specimens that undergo this procedure, whether they are small animal scraps or an entire human body.
The Body Worlds exhibit that I attended in Chicago was a part of the Body Worlds franchise that is headed by Gunther von Hagens, developer of the plastination process. Von Hagens is a theatrical man, having founded and patented the plastination process in the 1970s. He went on to head several plastination centers and laboratories, one of which is a private workspace that is secreted away behind a revolving staircase. He wears a black fedora wherever he goes, and considers his life work to be the dissemination of anatomical knowledge. So intent on this legacy of bringing anatomy to the people, he has performed public and televised autopsies, has created several different strains of his world-travelling Body Worlds exhibits (Body Worlds: Animals, Body Worlds: Cycle of Life), and accepts all manner of bodies into his plastinated creations, including those of executed Chinese prisoners.
I call the plastinates creations because the human and animal plastinates are posed so melotheatrically (remember: revolving staircase, black fedora, etc.), something I found appealing and humorous when visiting the exhibit in Chicago. Later, I found out that the bodies—a woman laying on her side, one hand behind her head like a swimsuit model, a nearly full-term fetus sagging from her belly; a pair of humans atop a rearing, skinned horse, the mane and tail hair intact—might not all have been encased in Western skin. The delusion of Western-ness is aided by an artifice of the most probable signifier of race: the plastination technology still has trouble transforming the odd solution that makes up eyeballs, so most of the plastinates stare out with replica eyeballs that have blue irises. Though they are outfitted with Western accessories (the plastinates ride shiny bicycles and hold shiny Western instruments), they might have, in fact, been Central or Eastern Asian.
When finding this out, I couldn’t help but assume that the plastinates were derived from stolen bodies. If the bodies had been Western, they would have been happy bodies, donated from an excess of wealth and an investment in knowledge production. It is the Western bodies that are interested in science and posterity, as well as history with a dash of the occult or steampunk. Such bodies would desire inclusion in the carefully contrapposto Body Worlds exhibit, in which the artistry of the plastinate form is equally important to the anatomical education imparted.
If you know that the bodies of the plastinates were actually people from Kyrgyzstan or China, where bodies are devalued, anonymized, imprisoned in variously despotic ways, and totally invisibilized to the Western world, then you know that the plastinates came from unhappy bodies. They were likely forgotten or secreted, sold or trafficked, rather than donated. They would not have given themselves to science. They were more likely given to the Body Worlds industry because they were lost to their families.
The Body Worlds exhibits are the most literal embodiment of Western consumption of non-Western bodies. My work in Bone Clean is my exploration of the insatiability of Western consumption and the non-Western teeming that nourishes the richly flourishing body of consumption. This is a work in words for those who are voiceless because their bodies cannot be comprehended. Their bodies carry unfamiliar memories, and so cannot be accessed as bodies. So many feed the few.