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Skeleton of a boy sitting on the 'D' of 'Dream', from Francesco Bertinatti, Elementi di anatomia fisiologica applicata alle belle arti figurative (Turin, 1837-39).  Artist: Mecco Leone. Lithograph
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Dream Anatomies

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.

Jussi Ängeslevä

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.

Carolyn Henne

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 the world.

Alexander Tsiaras

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 Museum, Naples).

The 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.

The 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.