Friday, November 16, 2007

The Day I Met a Real Live Mad Scientist

A few years back, Carol got this job assignment to photograph Dr. Gunther Von Hagens. He's the creator of the process of plastination, by which bodies and/or body parts can be preserved perfectly by replacing the natural juices of the body with plastic resin, or something like that. He's also the creator of Body Worlds, a traveling roadshow of genuine anatomical artistry, where cadavers, stripped of their outer layers of epidermis, stand frozen in whatever pose Dr. Gunther may choose. Carol and I had caught his act earlier. Body Worlds was in town at the California Science Center and we had managed to visit the exhibit on a day when Dr. Gunter would be giving a demonstration of the plastination process later in the afternoon. We were fascinated and horrified at the amazing exhibit around us. Two figures in particular really caught our eye. One was of a skinless gentleman, holding his removed skin over his arm like an article of clothing. The skin even swung gently in the breeze of the central air conditioning. The other figure was of a flayed gentleman with his arms spread wide revealing the different layers of muscle and bone in a pirouette of gross anatomy, topped with the hat that Dr. Gunther was always seen wearing. "What kind of person does this for a living?" we wondered. We quickly found out when we caught the good doctor explaining to a group of schoolchildren and few scattered adults, the process of plastinating a placenta. I really only managed to catch about a third of what he was saying, but it didn't matter. I was met with the realization that I was in the presence of A REAL LIVE MAD SCIENTIST! There I was, surrounded by sliced and diced body parts while this very unusual guy in a dark black hat explains to a group of nine-year-olds how to preserve a placenta so that you can cut it up later and then show it to the world. He wrapped up his talk and was taken away quickly. We were stunned. All that was left to do was to stagger through the gift gauntlet on our way to the exit. It could have ended there, but it didn't. As I said at the beginning, Carol got this gig taking a cover photo of Dr. Gunther Von Hagens for a now-defunct weekly newspaper. I became Carol's assistant for the day.

When we got there, we discovered that a few of the exhibits had been covered behind lucite. The Skin-Man's skin no longer swayed in the breeze. It made sense to protect the exhibits, but the Skin-Man was just so perfect. Dr. Gunther soon arrived and did not disappoint. He was happy to pose anywhere with any of his friends. That's what he calls 'em, and I believe him. We explained our disappointment of the lucite covering of the Skin-Man, and Von Hagens quickly suggested that we have the enormous cover removed right then and there! It would have taken a while and whole lot of effort, so Carol politely declined the offer. He did pose with the flayed Hat-Man, wearing a truly Lugosi-type grin. We then moved to the solarium area of the Science Center, where he had given the talk on preserving the placenta. We were standing next to his vertically sliced man, a guy sliced vertically into two-inch slices. I noticed that the sliced guy had a tattoo. Between photos, I had a moment to ask Gunther a question. "So, doctor, what kind of music do you like?", "Classical, I love to listen to Brahms" he may have answered. I'm really not sure. His English is very very German. I had a follow-up. "Do you play an instrument?" "Piano. I play to relax." Again, maybe he said that. "Well, I'll let you get back to the shoot, but thank you very much for your time!" We shook hands and I realized that I was shaking hands with A REAL LIVE MAD SCIENTIST!

I asked his him if I could take a photo with one of his figures, particularly, the front slice of the guy that he is holding in the above photo. The slice of the Slice-Man that had his face. He said it would be okay, so here I am, looking through the Slice-Man's eyelids. Yes, it is an unusual experience. Carol took a few more photos, and then Dr. Gunther told us of his plan to plastinate an elephant and then cut it into three-inch cubes. Or something like that. I think that's what he said.

In the movie Mystery Science Theater 3000 The Movie, Mike Nelson makes a comment about a point in time when science didn't have to have any specific purpose. That wonderful, golden era of the Mad Scientist. And that era still lives, for I have shaken hands with a man who wants to plastinate and cube an elephant. For science. For art.

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