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Late Modern Pickled Punk

Perhaps the most controversial of carnival exhibits in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century was known in the argot of the freak show as “pickled punk,” the preservation and display of fetuses, usually with some pronounced and spectacular deformity. Such displays titillated a curiosity for “knowledge” of the abnormal and bizarre, but like carnival freak shows in general, the practice largely died out in the 1940s with advances in medical knowledge that offered scientific explanations for the freaks, as well as a shift in public attitudes about the propriety of putting such oddities and anomalies on public display. Pickled punk saw a revival in the U.S. in the 1950s and 60s, but was soon outlawed in many states.

I was reminded of the history of the freak show, and of pickled punks in particular, when I saw this photograph, the first image in the recent reprise of a 2005 slide show at the Chicago Tribune :


What you are looking at is the vascular system of a human head that is on display as part of a traveling exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry titled “Body Worlds.” “Body Worlds” is one of a number of different shows which exhibit human bodies that have been flayed, vivisected and “plastinated.” Plastination is a chemical process that removes waters and fats from a dead body, replacing them with reactive polymers that deny bacteria the nutrition they need to effect decomposition. “Body Worlds” exhibits have been shown throughout the United States and Europe in recent years and with the avowed purpose “to educate the public about the inner workings of the human body and [to] show the effects of poor health, good health and lifestyle choices.”

There is surely need for great scientific literacy in the United States, but one has to wonder if what animates these shows is really an interest in knowledge or a perverse desire to encounter the macabre. I’ve not yet attended one of these shows, but I have talked with several who have and they report that the displays include everything from plastinated body organs (often deformed or diseased) to a wide array of  human bodies performing a full range of activities that include kneeling, smoking a cigarette, dribbling a basketball, shooting an arrow, sitting at a table while playing poker or chess, emulating Rodin’s “The Thinker,” and so on. And with the exception of the “The Smoker,” whose blackened lungs stand as a warning against the use of tobacco, there seems to be very little display or discussion of knowledge about human anatomy that would otherwise be hard to come by, though there is a great deal of attention to the technology of plastination, as well as praise and celebration of its inventor, scientist-artist Gunther von Hagen, who comes across in many ways as a contemporary P.T. Barnum.

Knowledge or entertainment? What’s the big deal? And why shouldn’t the mass dissemination of knowledge be entertaining? It is, of course, hard to know quite where to begin here, but one thing that clearly gets lost in all of this is that we are looking at flayed and vivisected corpses that at one time housed living and breathing human beings, their nameless bodies thoroughly objectified and put on display for our visual consumption. Questions have been raised recently about where the bodies actually come from, but there is another point to be made, for it is hard to imagine how these displays are designed more to prime or sate our thirst for knowledge—or to inure us to the dead or decaying body as part of an avant-garde intervention against bourgeois taboos—than to titillate our desire for macabre spectacle. Indeed, in a slightly different register we might actually call it pornography. How else can we explain the reported “fascination“ with images like that of “The Skin Man“ holding out his own outer shell for our examination (and edification)?


In its own way it would seem to be a late modern form of pickled punk.

Photo Credits: E. Jason Wamsgans/Tribune; Gunther von Hagens/Body World


Late Modern Pickled Punk


10 Responses

  1. Seneca says

    Body World’s has a pretty extensive history of controversy due to its “macabre spectacle.” Specifically, people were attacking the exhibit on the grounds that Von Hagens was deliberately avoiding the question of who these bodies were and where they came from (I think he asserts that their anonymity is “in respect for the dead”). What’s interesting, then, is how the exhibit is designed to deflect these questions (or perhaps resolve the exigency). While I was at the exhibit, I was stunned with the blatant reinscription of the bodies’ identities. As you said, they play basketball and chess and ride horses. These were usually male plastinates. The female plastinates were usually not as active or restricted to only seductive postures or motherhood. Anyway, the bodies tend to be in some action that signifies bourgeois leisure. Moreover, the postures of the plastinates also reference european “high Art” such as Rodin’s “Thinker” and a series of other popular renaissance artists. It seems to me that these “new” identities function to conceal any obvious remnant that these bodies were once “living and breathing human beings.” And while I agree that the exhibit certainly lacks scientific authenticity, the exhibit design (i.e. the captions, audio head sets, and staff that works there) nevertheless tries to frame the exhibit behind a scientific gaze. It tries to position the audience as medical examiners or scientific inquirers. In this sense, the bodies are objects of science (“plastinates”) and not corpses. So both the language of science as well as the reinscription of new identities seems to subordinate the audience’s humanitarian concerns to those of the pursuits of scientific knowledge as well the pleasure of upper-class spectacle.

    And as far as pornography is concerned, I think this exhibit demonstrates pornography as Susan Owen and Peter Ehrenhaus define the term: as that which operates at the expense of other people.

  2. Lucaites says

    Seneca: Well put. And your point is well taken. I especially like your analysis of the ways in which identities are reinscribed through bourgeois cultural practices. On the lurking scientific gaze, I’m told by one of my graduate students working on this problem that in fact the 19th- and early 20th century freak shows also operated in and through such a scientific gaze, and may well have played an important role in advancing popular perception of the scientization of medicine, creating what we might call a medical aesthetic. I would be interested in knowing how van Hagan’s exhibits compare/contrast with other similar shows (that I understand he maintains are “inauthentic” in some measure).

  3. a.m. says

    Given the fact that this traveling exhibition has been one of the highest grossing exhibitions in history, there is definitely reason to examine it’s popularity.

    I think from within the fine art and critical theory worlds, this has been written off as simple kitsch. The bourgeois poses, classical references and casual performances of the figures also serve to reduce the macabre and disturbing attributes of the figures.

    By taking death and the dead and dressing them up through “science,” we can walk up to death and the dead without really experiencing them. As any med school student knows, when you cut into your first cadaver, you have to establish a position in relation to the fact that this once was a real living person. These also were once real people. This exhibit smooths over that reality and their deaths with witty spectacle. It makes death more of a spectator sport, rather than something that we must all face and relate to. In this way it serves the function of kitsch, which offers a substance-less comfort in the face of a troubling problem.

  4. LL says

    The “Skin Man” pose is rather reminiscent of St. Bartholemew who was supposedly flayed before being crucified, and is sometimes represented holding his own skin. See for example the statue in the Duomo of Milan,
    or a recent version by Damien Hirst,

    I saw the Bodyworlds exhibition in Berlin some years ago. I was not really sure what to expect before I got there, but found it very interesting. I was not really struck by the macabre aspect of the show, which is in itself concerning, perhaps. It was so difficult to succeed in imagining the figures as “real people”, as the commentator above also notes.

  5. Katie W. says

    These “plastinates” remind me of turn-of-the-20th-century photographs of medical students horsing around with cadavers in various stages of dissection. It seems likely to me that in their case, striking an irreverent attitude helped distance them from the otherwise potentially horrifying nature of their work, and of viewing the human body as merely a collection of tissue and bone. Perhaps there is a similar impulse by those who view the exhibit to distance themselves from mortality? These photos have the reverse effect on me, however; they drive home the reality lurking beneath my skin, and, what’s more, its eventual fate. Not something I’d want to go see on a Sunday afternoon with the kids….

  6. kendall says

    I first found out about Gunther von Hagens’ works when I was in highschool, and was ecstatic when I got the chance to see Body Worlds 2 when it came through my hometown of Denver after I had moved away to college, art school even, and came back to see it. I found every plastinate to be as amazing as I had hoped they would have been. Plus in the guided audio tour it had von Hagens talking about how he learned to embrace art with his work since in the first place he is a scientist but art and science have a lengthy history and one helps the other. I was also surprised when I convinced a friend to drive 3 hours to see Body Worlds 3 as it was one of the last days it’d be in Saint Louis and we drove and arrived in time for our midnight tickets. There I was exstatic to see The Skin Man, since I had seen images on the web, and to me it just spoke to me about life itself. I saw it more like Birthday Suit Man, and it constantly represents different things to me in more of an art form than science, but when I actually saw him and stood inches away and saw the hairs still attached to the skin and how thick the skin was I was truly amazed with the science part of it. In the exhibits I have also noticed how some spectators refuse to believe that they are REAL human bodies, I believe this is because they are afraid to be reminded of their own mortality. Than again our own mortality and being reminded of it runs back in time with art as far as my art history suvey classes took me.
    There is one of the knock-off body exhibits in town that I am curious to see the comparison to von Hagens’ works, but I can’t bring myself to pay for a ticket to it after having such in interest in Gunther von Hagens’ works for 8 years at the very least. I know everything at the shows has made my mouth drop in ‘aww’ and I do believe that every choice has been made appropriately for science but uses an artistic influence to clarify it to the everyday viewer while communicating to viewers who take everything at face value and rewarding those who know they history or anatomy history with more specific meanings behind the poses.

  7. Gigi says

    This, to me, seems rather similar to the impulse some people have to laugh at a funeral. The reality of death is so piercingly real that we have to find a way to make it acceptable and numb ourselves to the fact that it is inevitable. Therefore it’s fitting that the poses would be almost “family friendly.” If Von Hagens had made plastinate look as if it was being hanged or writhing in pain or in some other unhappy situation, the public would be horrified. However, as the corpses (because that’s what they truly are…chemically enhanced corpses) are posed in familiar ways, the reminder of death is much more subtle. The human body, instead of being the shell of a human being, is now merely a piece of museum art. We can deal with this.

    I remember seeing a 60 Minutes piece on the exhibit a few years ago, and Von Hagens stated the bodies were donated and used with permission. I think they may have been organ donors but I don’t clearly recall. I’m pretty sure he’s still taking donors who wish to be a part of the exhibit in the future.

    Macabre? A little. Beautiful? Absolutely.

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