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News / City Life

Sydney’s second exhibition of real human bodies says they’re the original, and most ethical

Cadaver split down the middle.
Photograph: Olivia Gee

After the controversial Real Bodies exhibition left Sydney in September, there’s a new exhibition in the city touted as the first of its kind, Body Worlds: Vital.

At Sydney Town Hall, you can find 150 expertly preserved, donated anatomical specimens displayed in various types of dissection, which are presented in order to help audiences understand how lifestyle choices, like smoking and physical inactivity, effect our bodies.

It comes from Gunther von Hagens, the original creator of ‘plastination.’ This is a process which stops body decomposition by vacuuming out the water within body tissue and replacing it with a polymer plastic. This creates the unique aesthetic you’ll see in the Body Worlds cadavers and that’s been replicated in exhibits like Real Bodies.

Photograph: Olivia Gee

Body Worlds curator and von Hagens’ wife, doctor Angel Whalley, says she’s often asked why people are interested in this kind of exhibition.

“For me it’s very obvious, because the exhibition is all about you. It’s all about life,” she says.

Each cadaver or specimen shows a different element of how bodies function or fail. One striding figure with a highlighted cardiovascular system shows how stress elevates heart rate, while another in a crouched position shows how muscles involuntarily control movements and posture.

Photograph: Olivia Gee

Away from the intriguing specimens, there are interactive multimedia displays analysing lifestyle habits, from drug use to diet and exercise.

“When we started it was a more anatomical exhibition,” says Whalley, “But I tried to find a way to be even more relevant to our audience, to relate more to these people’s lives. So I had the idea to build a story around it.

“This special edition comes along with the ‘vital’ theme. So I’m addressing the most prevalent diseases of our modern life, focusing on obesity, on diabetes, on cardiovascular diseases and so on.”

Aware of the ethical concerns raised ahead of similar exhibitions, Whalley says their donation program, developed in the early 1980s, sets them apart. Run by the Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg, Germany, this program documents more than 17,000 people who have approved their bodies for donation.

“There’s hardly any copycat exhibits that can refer to a body donation program as we do, and I do feel this is absolutely essential for an exhibition like this.”

Whalley tells us their donors come from diverse backgrounds.

“The vast majority of our [living] donors felt inspired after seeing the exhibition. They really want to do something good beyond their lives.”

Whalley also says there is a beauty in what they do, and her favourite kind of specimen is a very delicate one.

Photograph: Olivia Gee

“It’s a cast of the arterial system; there’s no tissue left. We inject a red polymer into the arteries and when it cures it takes over the shape of the system, and then we can dissolve the tissue away, leaving behind the cast. These are just the major arteries. If you were to inject all the fine capillaries it would be so dense you could hardly look through it.

“They look so beautiful and they are very fragile. So to me, they are the best representation of life.”

Body Worlds: Vital is showing at Sydney Town Hall until March 31, 2019.

While you're out, head to one of the best art exhibitions in Sydney this month.