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In her thought-provoking essay “Shipwreck,” Cat Bohannon delves into the intricate intersection of art and science, specifically examining the display of bodies of deceased humans as a form of artistic expression. Bohannon argues that this peculiar art, exemplified by the process of plastination, challenges conventional boundaries and prompts a reconsideration of what constitutes art. Throughout the essay, Bohannon blends meticulous research, insightful interviews, and personal reflections, weaving a narrative that takes the reader on a journey through the complex realm of creative anatomy.
Bohannon embarks on her exploration by delving into the intricacies of plastination, a process she finds both complicated and, at times, disconcerting. Plastination, known for its utilization in preserving and dissecting human bodies, serves as the focal point of Bohannon's inquiry. She grapples with the question of whether plastination can truly be classified as art or if it remains irrevocably entwined with the scientific realm.
Bohannon initially expresses difficulty in perceiving plastination as a form of art.
The process, as she describes, is riddled with complexities and nuances that challenge her understanding. Plastination, she contends, transcends the conventional boundaries of "creative anatomy" and emerges as a distinct form of expression akin to the more recognized domains of painting or sculpture. This realization forms a pivotal point in Bohannon's exploration, setting the stage for a deeper dive into the fusion of science and art.
Bohannon's narrative unfolds as she takes us through her firsthand observations within the plastination factory, drawing striking parallels to Andy Warhol's legendary "Factory.
" Her initial unease stems from the realization that the materials used in plastination were once integral components of living, breathing individuals. This ethical dilemma becomes a recurring theme, compelling Bohannon to question the artistic merit of a process so intimately linked to the human experience.
The vivid descriptions provided by Bohannon offer a glimpse into the surreal landscape of the plastination factory. The muscles, preserved with viscous pink strings, evoke conflicting emotions, reminiscent of the strength of dancers juxtaposed with the haunting image of hopelessly mangled feet. Even a seemingly mundane vat of liquid takes on a macabre quality as Bohannon discovers a submerged corpse, the liquid itself described as "candy pink, like cheap bubblegum, Pepto-Bismol, Pokemon pink."
Amidst these disconcerting scenes, Bohannon's perception gradually shifts. She contends that the plastination factory is more than a sterile environment for scientific endeavors—it is a workshop for artists. The transformation becomes apparent when she encounters a preserved camel on display, convincing herself that this creation is not merely the result of purists or simple anatomists, but the craftsmanship of artists infusing expression into lifeless forms.
As Bohannon navigates the plastination factory, the echoes of Warhol's "Factory" reverberate in her mind. The comparison is striking, highlighting the convergence of artistic expression in seemingly disparate realms. Yet, the inherent discomfort persists as Bohannon grapples with the reality that the raw materials for this artistry were once vibrant and sentient beings, contrasting sharply with the manufactured and detached environment reminiscent of Warhol's artistic haven.
One particularly poignant moment occurs when Bohannon encounters a smoker, and in that encounter, she hears "the message spoken in an unfamiliar language—a language made of breath and blood and finality." This moment serves as a turning point, a visceral experience that transcends the visual and compels Bohannon to acknowledge the profound, albeit unsettling, artistic language embedded in the plastination process.
Bohannon's initial skepticism regarding the classification of dead human bodies as art undergoes a transformative journey as she engages with the plastination process. The essay draws parallels with Annie Dillard's "Seeing," where the notion of paying attention to minute details is essential for appreciating artistic skill. Bohannon, like Dillard, recognizes that true artistry often lies in the subtleties that escape casual observation.
Just as Dillard explores the concept of "artificial obvious," Bohannon's narrative unfolds to reveal that it is through experiencing the plastination process that one truly comprehends the artistic prowess exhibited by the body exhibit designers. The microscopic details, brought to the forefront through plastination, echo Dillard's assertion that seeing things differently enriches our everyday experiences. In this context, Bohannon's journey serves as a testament to the transformative power of perception and the hidden artistry within seemingly clinical processes.
Bohannon provocatively challenges the traditional notion that art is confined to the realms of paintings and sculptures. She poses a fundamental question: Can a deceased human body be considered a piece of art "about" the human body? While initially grappling with this concept, Bohannon ultimately arrives at a compelling conclusion, asserting that the bodies, even after becoming the "ships of the soul" post-passing, can transcend mere remnants and embody a distinct form of artistic expression.
Her argument extends to a comparison with conventional art forms found in museums. Bohannon draws parallels between the designer's expression in the plastination process and a sculptor's touch on a statue displayed in a museum. In this juxtaposition, she prompts readers to reevaluate their preconceived notions, challenging the distinction between the perceived lifelessness of marble and the preserved bodies subjected to plastination.
By contemplating the artistic value inherent in preserved dead bodies, Bohannon questions the arbitrary boundaries imposed on art based on the medium or subject matter. A painting of a woman from centuries past or a sculpture of Moses in Rome is no less a work of art, despite the divergence in materials and methods. Bohannon, echoing her observations in the plastination factory, emphasizes that, like marble, even the plastinated bodies are devoid of life, yet they carry the imprints of artistic expression.
Embedded within Bohannon's exploration is a striking comparison to Andy Warhol's iconic "Factory." Warhol, an influential American modern artist, left an indelible mark on the art world through his creation of beautiful paintings. The reference to Warhol's Factory serves as more than a mere analogy; it symbolizes the fusion of creative spaces where unconventional forms of art are nurtured.
Just as Warhol's Factory was a haven for artistic experimentation, Bohannon draws a parallel with the plastination factory as a space where artists engage in the unique craft of preserving and presenting the human form. This historical reference enriches the narrative, connecting Bohannon's contemporary exploration to a legacy of artistic innovation and challenging the status quo.
In conclusion, Cat Bohannon's exploration of the intersection between art and science, particularly in the context of plastination, unveils a nuanced perspective that challenges conventional boundaries. The plastination process, initially perceived as disconcerting, emerges as a unique form of artistic expression that transcends the traditional categorizations of "science" or "technology."
Bohannon's journey through the plastination factory mirrors Annie Dillard's call to "see" the world differently, emphasizing the transformative power of perception. The discomfort elicited by the realization that the raw materials were once living beings echoes in the comparison to Warhol's Factory, highlighting the juxtaposition of life and artistry in a seemingly clinical environment.
As Bohannon challenges the distinction between the living and the preserved, she invites readers to reconsider the very essence of art. Dead bodies, once the vessels of souls, become, in Bohannon's eyes, vessels of artistic expression. The essay prompts us to view preserved bodies in the same light as traditional art forms, breaking down preconceived notions and questioning the limitations placed on artistic mediums.
In essence, Bohannon's exploration not only redefines the boundaries of art but also prompts a broader reflection on the nature of creativity. Plastination, with its discomforting yet mesmerizing aspects, emerges as a testament to the enduring capacity of art to provoke, challenge, and ultimately transform our understanding of the human experience.
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