Anatomy: Flayed, pickled, plastinated

Subjects

Ewen Callaway discovers compelling cross-currents in two very different displays of dead animals exhibited just a few kilometres apart.

Animals Inside Out

Natural History Museum, London. Until 16 September 2012, then on tour.

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A horse's head is sliced lengthwise into three sections and splayed a few centimetres apart. In another gallery, a 2-metre skinned shark hovers, its red blood vessels aglow. Each is the work of a controversial iconoclast, made rich by his grotesque creations.

Gunther Von Hagens' shark hovers, its red blood vessels aglow. Credit: G. VON HAGENS, INST. PLASTINATION, HEIDELBERG, GERMANY/BODY WORLDS

I am, of course, describing anatomist Gunther von Hagens' thrilling exhibition at London's Natural History Museum (NHM), a menagerie given the same patented plastination treatments as his blockbuster Body Worlds. The show might spark envy from the British artist Damien Hirst, no stranger to dead fauna. His career retrospective is showing a few kilometres away at Tate Modern.

Von Hagens is at pains to define himself as a scientist, albeit one “with a sense of aesthetics”. His Animals Inside Out is a collaboration between NHM and von Hagens' Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg, Germany (a branch in Dalian, China, is devoted to animal preparations). The show opens with a tribute to Richard Owen, the comparative anatomist who founded the NHM and coined the term homology to refer to structures with common evolutionary origins, such as wings and arms.

It can be easy to see anatomy as art here. Cross-section slices of a crocodile, needlefish and other animals are mounted like paintings — but labelled like anatomy diagrams. The (more or less) whole animals are often artfully posed. A cat, with skin, muscles and two legs removed, lies on its side as if playing with a ball of yarn — and offering a view of its chest cavity. The stances of a pair of reindeer — one with legs outstretched as if mid-leap, the other poised as if about to jump — highlight the animals' musculature.

Von Hagens' most stunning treatments strip away skin, muscle and organs, leaving only vasculature, injected with coloured resin. Two horse heads, so thick with capillaries that they seem made of red foam, are placed opposite one another as if guarding the exhibition. A tiny piglet and a lamb, both 'peeled', stand face-to-face as if at a morbid petting zoo. The shark has a sinister grin as it hovers above its large liver, which helps to keep it buoyant. My only quibble is that no species names are given for the animals — an odd decision at a museum that is a testament to Linnaean nomenclature.

In The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, artist Damien Hirst makes no attempt to romanticize death. Credit: D. HIRST/SCIENCE LTD/DACS/PRUDENCE CUMING ASSOCIATES

Many of Hirst's best-known pieces are tame by comparison. The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), a 4-metre-long, formaldehyde-fixed tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier), floats in its vitrine with skin like rumpled denim, misshapen fins and a gaping mouth revealing rounded, un-razor-like teeth. The iconic Mother and Child Divided (1993) features a cow and calf, each halved lengthways, hovering in four formalin-filled glass cases. The work bears a fleeting similarity to von Hagens' creations until you walk between the split carcasses. Instead of brilliant reds and purples, the wilted organs are a dull grey.

It is tempting to say that the British artist could learn a thing or two from the idiosyncratic German about preserving animals, but that would miss the point of these particular pieces: that death is ugly, awful, inevitable, and to doll it up is misguided.

In Hirst's hands death can also be beautiful. Butterfly wings have never been used to greater effect than in Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven (2007), a triptych resembling a cathedral's stained-glass windows. In and Out of Love (1991) is a bright, humid room filled with hundreds of fluttering butterflies. As I watch, one seems dead, until a museum employee picks it up and lays it in a bowl of cut-up fruit. It lives!

Hirst isn't all about animals. Pills, cigarettes and jewels are major motifs in his art, and the exhibition's chronological presentation traces how his use of these objects has evolved. A single cabinet of pharmaceuticals and surgical equipment (Sinner, 1988) morphs into a room-sized pharmacopoeia (Pharmacy) four years later. By 2000, Trinity — Pharmacology, Physiology, Pathology is a room jammed with cabinets of gleaming silver surgical equipment, drug packaging and anatomy models.

But, a science-minded reader might ask, is it art? Here, intention and context are everything. Hirst's animals and objects are art because he says they are, and galleries such as the Tate Modern agree. Von Hagens, who purposefully chose the NHM as his venue, summed up his position in a 2007 interview: “I don't do Damien Hirst,” he said. “I am an anatomist, not an artist.” Von Hagens' dead animals look prettier than most of Hirst's, but that is the point.

Damien Hirst

Tate Modern, London. Until 9 September 2012.

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Callaway, E. Anatomy: Flayed, pickled, plastinated. Nature 488, 456–457 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/488456a

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