Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Morbid Fascination

The Appeal Court in Paris has decided today (Thursday 30th April) to permenantly shut down the controversial ‘Our Body’ exhibition in the city. Several groups had protested about the ethics of displaying sliced and preserved dead bodies, particularly as it is suspected that several may be executed Chinese prisoners. Last Tuesday, the Judge Louis-Marie Raingeard decided to order the closure of this event, subject to this appeal.

Whilst I had no personal desire to visit the exhibition, particularly with its 15 Euro entry fee, I find the decision of the French justice to be very interesting. As one of the defence lawyers pointed out, this exhibition has already toured the world and has been seen by over 30 million people “sans qu'à aucun moment, aucune justice du monde n'ait songé à en interdire l'accès à quiconque” (without at any moment any judicial system even dreaming of preventing anyone from visiting).

So what makes France different from the rest of the world? Interestingly, the public prosecutor’s argument was the following ; “Dans notre société, il y a des tabous, des domaines dans lesquels on n'a pas le droit de pénétrer, des transgressions qu'il n'est pas possible d'autoriser" (in our society there are taboos, areas where we should not penetrate and infringements that it is not possible to authorise). It seems that the Judge accepted this argument, which the defence had criticised as being almost a religious decision, explaining that “The appropriate place for the corpse, according to the law, is the cemetery".

The organisers of the event had previously highlighted its scientific and educational nature, and the fact that all of the people featured in the exhbition had agreed to their bodies being used in such a manner prior to death. But how much of this is science and how much voyeursim? This is a question that the French authorities had already had to answer, over 100 years ago when the most popular free show in the city was a trip to the Morgue.

The viewing room of the Paris Morgue in the 19th Century.

Vanessa R. Schwartz’s book “Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-siècle Paris" deals with this subject in fascinating detail (the chapter on the morgue is available as a preview in Google Books). The Morgue, situated at the tip of the Ile de la Cité, was open to anybody who wished to visit, ostensibly to permit the identification of bodies, but in reality for reasons of titilation and fascination. It is reported that hundreds of thousands of people passed through the doors, including tourists and people from all social classes. Indeed, the fact that members of the public had to mingle in one single spot in front of the large department store style windows led to one witness labelling it as a “temple of equality”. To this extent, people were as equal in front of death as they are after it.

The Institut Medico-Legal today.

The building was pulled down in 1914 and a new one built, sandwiched today between the line 5 of the Metro and the busy road alongside the Seine. An unassuming brick building, its name has also been changed to disguise its activity, and it is now known simply as the ‘Institut Medico-Legal’. Its role is still to investigate deaths that occur on the city streets, in suspicious circumstances or when the deceased is unidentified, but visits to the building are very strictly controlled today. This is not to say however that people’s attitudes have changed too. The popularity of the ‘Our Body’ exhibition worldwide would seem to suggest that people are as fascinated as ever with the subject, but is this something we should attempt to satisfy or to supress? In France now they have twice chosen interdiction, which in these two cases was probably the correct decision. The public interest should be geared towards education, not slightly dubious forms of entertainment.

Note: Due to time restrictions, I have not been able to take my own photographs for this post. The poster comes from the official exhibition website, the picture of the old morgue from the Morbid Anatomy blog, and the photo of the Institut Medico-Legal today from this website. I will try to change these images in the coming days, but in the meantime, if anybody objects I will remove them immediately.

8 comments:

yui said...

Hi! I'm behind you.
Good luck!

CarolineLD said...

You've answered a question I've been meaning to check out for ages: I'd seen references in literature which suggested the mortuary was visited in this way, and had been meaning to check whether that was indeed the case. Thank you!

Peter said...

Our tastes of what we may wish to visit have obvioulsy changed with the time - assisting at executions, visiting mortuaries...

... and to explain this now illegal exposition you have taken the risk of "illegally" producing some pictures! :-)

Starman said...

While I could easily see that happening in the US, I was of the opinion that France was more sophisticated and enlightened than us. Are the French now taking the same religious right path of which we are finally ridding ourselves? I'm beginning to lose faith (pardon the pun) in the French, and may have to re-think my desire to live in France.

Mélisse said...

A ce que j'ai compris ce n'est pas l'expostion de cadavres en tant que telle qui posait problème,tout au moins à la Cour d'appel, mais plutôt le fait qu'on ne pouvait déterminer l'origine licite de ceux-ci et qu'il était donc impossible de s'assurer de l'existence de consentements autorisés. C'est en première instance qu'ils avaient des problèmes moraux. En ce qui me concerne je trouve cela intéressant mais pas très ragoûtant !

Squirrel said...

I had no desire to see this either. to each his own, my friends went, they had various reactions.
I'm with you on the entry fee.

Cergie said...

J'ai vu cette affiche dans le métro, j'ai pensé aux condamnés à mort chinois, certains dont on utiliserait les organes d'ailleurs pour des greffes.
Je connais des personnes, des proches, qui on donné leur corps à la science...

ArtSparker said...

There was quite a bit of controversy about this when the exhibit was in San Francisco, I don't recall what the result was.

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