Art as Human Sashimi
by Steve Kettmann
3:00 a.m. 10.Sep.99.PDT
LINZ, Austria -- The talk of Ars Electronica was the Plastinator and fluorescent-dog man, two artists who showed how thought-provoking the festival's new emphasis on life sciences could be.
"It's not a small feat to take a 20-year tradition and re-orient it," said Eduardo Kac (pronounced "Katz"), the Brazilian-born artist who years ago stuck an animal-ID microchip in his ankle, and has an art project in the works to genetically engineer a dog with a fluorescent-green coat.
"The rest of the world is just beginning to catch up to what Ars Electronica was doing 15 years ago, and now they are going in a new direction," he said.
The Plastinator, a charming German named Gunther von Hagens, was hard to avoid. His good-naturedly ghoulish work puts the human body on unforgettable display by pumping cadavers full of epoxy and other polymers. Von Hagens and his helpers then peel away fat and other "surrounding tissue" and lovingly arrange the sashimi-sliced muscle and bone underneath.
"Critics say this is a piece of art," Von Hagens said during his speech, eyeing one of his creations on the conference's big screen. "I say it's a piece of enlightenment."
People have waited hours to see the results at exhibits in Germany and Japan, and plastinated forms were hard to avoid throughout the main building where the Ars Electronica symposia were held.
Especially powerful was a glimpse of the main specimen -- a flood-lit, plastinated corpse, legs elegantly tucked into a fencer's pose, bony hand (or hand-like bones) extended for a feint forward.
As with the other figures, the sharply defined musculature was the color of the ham being sold at the sandwich counter, and it was sliced into thin layers and pulled apart for better viewing. The skull was sliced open too, so you could study the cavity where the brain once was.
"In this way we can look into the body interior," Von Hagens said. "The visitor has the task of closing the body in his mind."
But if at first Von Hagens' work seems like part of the current trend toward shock, nothing the man said or did in Linz backs up that idea. He invented plastination 20 years ago to help students study the human body without gagging in a roomful of reeking cadavers.
He does not even claim his work is art, though he does talk often of "aesthetics" and wears a hat and vest that seems meant to recall one of the most famous artists in recent German history, Joseph Beuys.
"I don't feel I am an artist," he said. "I am a plastinator."
People come away from his displays ready to take better care of themselves.
"Plastination makes it possible for people to have body liberation," he said. "There is not a disgust.... The plastinate is actually a bridge to your own body."
So does that mean Von Hagens plans to have his own body put on display after his death?
"Certainly, certainly," he said. "But first, hopefully, I will plastinate for another 30 years."
That might be how long it takes Kac to create his glowing canine. He readily admits it might never happen, but says that the art is not the dog, but the process of living with the dog.
"What is it like to have the transgenic as a family member?" he asked. "What is it like to clean up the poop of the transgenic?"
Near the plastinated figure in fencing motion, Kac sat down for coffee and did a little fencing of his own, deconstructing a question about how he handles people who ask certain questions -- like, is translating a sentence of Genesis into Morse Code, and then into genetically altered bacteria, in fact, art?
This was classic Ars Electronica '99. Get a lot of people together to think, talk, and live art and its possibilities, and hope that no one feels left behind by the push toward the new.
"I don't think any artists felt slighted by the emphasis on life science," said Rachel Baker, a network artist from London who works on irational.org. "I think it was a very intelligent choice for them to make. They are good at spotting trends. They know when to spot a key technology event, and biotechnology is."
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