Terri Dunbar-Curran

THERE’S an intense look of concentration in the saxophonist’s eyes as his back arches – his inflated lungs, ribs, muscle, sinew and internal organs exposed. This is no ordinary performer and it’s been a long time since his instrument produced a sound. The musician is one of the specimens on display at Body Worlds and The Cycle of Life that opened at the V&A Waterfront this week.

The first few moments inside the exhibition are breathless as you come to terms with being surrounded by the preserved bodies of real people and animals, then gradually a sense of wonder at the intricacies of anatomy takes hold.

Body Worlds is the result of the work started by Dr Gunther von Hagens in 1977 when he invented plastination – the groundbreaking process of preserving human tissue – while working as an anatomist at the University of Heidelberg.

The process is fairly complex, but the steps involved include halting decay using formalin, the removal of body fat and water in an acetone (solvent) bath, immersing the specimen in a polymer solution, placing it in a vacuum chamber to remove the acetone and ensure the polymer penetrates every cell, careful positioning, and finally curing. The entire process of dissecting and plastinating a body requires about 1 500 working hours and takes about a year to complete, much longer for larger specimens.

“The Cycle of Life is about unveiling the entire human body and all its various systems,” explains Dr Angelina Whalley, curator of the exhibition and wife of Von Hagens. “It focuses on ageing and how the body develops. And it looks at what makes us vulnerable and to what extent we have the fate of our bodies in our hands.”

Visitors will witness the arc of ageing, from the moment of conception to old age.

Von Hagens explains, “The older I get, the more I realise that death is normal and that it is life that is exceptional. I hope this exhibition will encourage people to strive to live with inspiration every day throughout their lives.”

Thanks to their donation programme, the Body Works team have more than 13 000 volunteers on their books. While a vast majority are from Germany, where the project is based, there are even some South Africans on the list. Due to overwhelming interest, however, the programme has been put on hold for now.

Whalley likes each collection to be as comprehensive as possible and, in addition to full posed figures and cross-sections, this selection includes healthy and diseased organs, highlighting conditions like arthritis and cancer.

“Things that people have hardly any chance to see and grasp what they actually are. But people don’t only come to learn, they also want to be entertained. My goal is to really touch people’s hearts and make them aware and fascinate them.”

Whalley takes care that the displays are “equally educational, inspiring and beautiful”. Each exhibition contains more than 200 specimens and while the larger works, like the elephant, have not been included, there is plenty to keep visitors engrossed. It is recommended that you give yourself about two hours to explore the exhibition. Take time examining the human and animal specimens. Linger over the delicate red lace-like filigree arteries of a rabbit, a duck, and a human arm. Gaze into the very depths of a man’s brain, or examine the differences between a healthy lung and that of a smoker.

While the exhibition carries a PG 10 rating, younger children are welcome to attend accompanied by adults.

“This is not a freak show. We are convinced that parents and teachers know better than we do whether a child is able to cope with it,” Whalley says, adding that school groups and families should find the exhibition fascinating.

“The entire exhibition is something people will never forget.

“For the vast majority it’s really a life-changing experience. You get close to your inner self in a unique way you would not have otherwise.”

l Body Worlds and The Cycle of Life will be on display until January 31. Tickets are R140, R110 for seniors and students, R90 for children under 17 and free for children under six. Family tickets for two adults and two children are R400. See