The Art of the Visible Human
We have no direct access to the interior of our bodies. What goes on inside us is a mystery. Anatomical representation and imaging offer us a trace or facsimile of the inner self: a mirror image that is an incitement to dream. The monumental pieces presented here—works by Alexander Tsiaras, Carolyn
Henne, Jussi Ängeslevä, and two Visible Human Plexi-Books originally
commissioned by the San Francisco Exploratorium—use data from the National Library of Medicine's Visible Human dataset. By virtue of their scale, they model a direct one-to-one correspondence between representation and reality: the anatomical image looms as large as the living, breathing self.
Finnish designer Jussi Ängeslevä’s interactive installation
allows a visitor to track segments of the Visible Human data set against
segments of his or her own body. Despite the discrepancy between displayed
image and user—the lack of heartbeat and other internal movements,
etc.—the immediacy of the interaction creates the illusion of
reality. Visitors often assume they are seeing themselves. The experiential
"realness" of Body Scanner shows how easily anatomical imagery
gets translated into body image.
Suspended Self Portrait, an interactive sculpture installation, consists of 89 vinyl sheets painted with cross-section images derived from the Visible Human dataset. To determine the cross
sections, artist Carolyn Henne made a mold of herself and sliced it. Then
she painted a corresponding Visible Human cross-section—organs,
muscles, fat, bone—on each sheet. From a distance the body seems
to float in three dimensions. Closer up, visitors can touch the sheets
to make the organs appear to assemble and dissolve. Blowing on the sheets or running
one’s fingers along the edges causes the figure to subtly move as
if floating or breathing. Suspended Self Portrait helps us to visualize
an inner self often left unclaimed as we try to maintain our profile in
In 17th-century Europe, readers were often encouraged to think of the anatomical
body in geographical terms, as "a little world," or as a microcosm.
"Whatsoever is in the universal world is also in man," and made
visible through anatomy, argued Nicholas Culpepper in 1654. This animated
laser hologram, by artist/scientist/journalist Alexander Tsiaras, updates
the metaphor by refiguring the Visible Human as Atlas holding up the Earth.
The piece is based on one of the most celebrated statues of antiquity,
the Farnese Atlas (ca. 200 A.D., currently in the National Archeological
Visible Human Plexi-Books
Originally created for the San Francisco Exploratorium’s Revealing
Bodies exhibition, these two pieces representing the male
and female Visible Human, are now the largest "books" in the National Library of Medicine’s
collection. By virtue of their monumental scale, they allow viewers to
enter into, and identify with, the Visible Humans, and remind us of their humanity. At the same
time, the scale of the figures, and their "meatiness," may also provoke feelings of estrangement from our customary identification with anatomical imagery.
Visible Human Project
Anatomists first began to take cross sections from frozen cadavers in the early 1800s. They found that slices could translate the three-dimensional complexity of organic structures into flat, easy-to-read specimens, which then could be preserved or drawn by an artist. In 1989 the National Library of Medicine embarked on a plan to use frozen cross sections to make a comprehensive digitized "library" of the human body: the Visible Human Project. Two bodies acquired through donations met bioethical standards of informed consent: a 39-year-old convict executed in Texas by lethal injection; and a 59-year-old Maryland housewife who died of cardiovascular disease. Scientists scanned the cadavers, using CT (computerized tomography) and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). The corpses, deep-frozen in blue gelatin, were then milled to remove thin cross sections of tissue, from head to toe. As each layer was exposed, the surface was digitally photographed, creating data that could be reassembled, navigated and manipulated with computer software.