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Beyond the Body: A portrait of autopsy

An exhibition review by Amy Holguin, Uncomfortable Oxford Guides Manager

The first thing that struck me when I entered the Beyond the Body: A portrait of autopsy exhibition at the Jam Factory was the amount of colour. In contrast to the almost monochrome poster, the exhibition flooded the predominantly white gallery with a vivid rainbow of shades. Reading the responses left by other visitors, I found that many shared my surprise. It highlighted that this exhibition is not about death per se, but life. It is centred upon the past thoughts and experiences of the deceased, and the emotions and beliefs of those they left behind and of those who medically or scientifically benefit from autopsy.

The exhibition is a collaborative project between social scientist Halina Suwalowska (Exeter College, Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities, University of Oxford) and artist Anna Suwalowska (Royal College of Art), and considers the ethical dilemmas that autopsy presents, through four mixed media pieces. The detailed accompanying texts take examples from across the globe to broaden our understanding of how different communities and individuals might perceive life, death and autopsy.

One piece concentrates upon the concerns of a pathologist questioning their own right to know the cause of death at the expense of the deceased’s privacy. Another explores the interconnection of death and the universe through the eyes of a Buddhist priest. A piece with faces of individuals in ruffs shows the progression of the field from the early days of dissection to present-day concerns of scientists to develop minimally invasive techniques. In the centre of the Boiler Room Gallery lies a piece depicting almost fifty hearts. This focuses the debate upon consent, highlighting that within a community (or even a family) many conflicting perspectives may be present and create barriers to reaching a consensus as to how best to respect the dead. Further, the discussion of the connection (or lack thereof) between soul, mind, self and body in relation to death shows that debate surrounding consent is not just about respecting the desires of the living relatives. It is also about respecting the past - and in some cases ongoing - wishes of the deceased.

The use of mixed media creates intricate, textured and - at times - visually disorientating pieces mirroring the plurality and layered complexity of perspectives surrounding autopsy. This approach separates the exhibition from others such as Body Worlds, a travelling collection of dissected bodies first developed in the late 1970s by Gunther von Hagens. The Body Worlds exhibitions appealed to the morbid curiosity of many, and were seen as valuable educational opportunities. However, they were drowned in controversies and ethical problems relating to dissection, consent and the display of human bodies. One visitor to the Beyond the Body exhibition wrote that the pieces “make for a visually beautiful experience. But a part of me would like it to be a bit more of the opposite,” perhaps expecting a more harrowing and even gruesome portrayal found in exhibitions like Body Worlds. However, this could have also been achieved with a more abstract mixed-media approach.

The exhibition is intentionally uncomfortable. Considering the tensions and contradictions surrounding autopsy, this comes as no surprise. However, the colour and use of mixed media, alongside the informative accompanying texts, creates a very sensitive platform for discussion. The black-board inviting visitors to share their thoughts “from your mind, from you heart” allows the audience to actively join this conversation and deepen the number of voices represented in the exhibition.

It is an altogether thought-provoking exhibition, not only encouraging the visitor to consider the multitude of opinions and concerns relating to autopsy but also the ways by which an exhibition should tackle these themes in an appropriate and sensitive manner. While some viewers wrote that they found the exhibition “uneasy – in a good way”, and even scary, others considered the pieces calming. Individuals not only had a breadth of opinions regarding autopsy, but experienced vastly different emotional responses to the pieces and exhibition as a whole.

Beyond the Body: A portrait of autopsy is on in the Boiler Room Gallery of the Jam Factory, 4 Hollybush Row, Oxford OX1 1HU until 25 November 2019. Admission is free.

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