Probing plastinated life

September 19, 2011

By Sheng Li

I was totally amazed when I first saw the exhibition of the plastinated human body specimens. I couldn’t believe that inside our human skin we all look like that! After visiting the exhibition several times, my photographer instinct pushed me to do a story on it, focusing on the production process of the specimens.

On September 13, I finally received permission to visit the workshops of Dalian Hoffen Bio-Technique Co., Ltd. I was very honored as according to the founder and chairman of the company Dr. Sui Hongjin, I was the first photographer allowed to photograph the whole process of the making of the specimens.

Founded in 2004, Dalian Hoffen Bio-Technique Co., Ltd. specializes in the production, preservation and exhibition of plastinated biotic specimens of human and animals. Their workshops and the Mysterious Life Museum are located some 50 km (31 miles) from the center of Dalian city, in the northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning.

As I was walked down the hallway inside the company where dozens of specimens of horses, pigs, and dogs were displayed, excitement and nervousness rose rapidly as I wondered when and where I could see human specimens. Soon after, Dr Sui led me into 200 square meter (yard) room, in which employees in small groups of two to four people were working on their partially-done plastinated human body specimens. I started taking pictures immediately. They peeled off the skin and cut out the nerve tissues, the blood vessels, the muscles and the bones. Apparently the employees’ work needed their full concentration, as none of them even bothered to take a glance at me. They all looked peaceful and calm though they were slicing into real human bodies.

Then I entered the room where the specimens were placed in a giant oven to harden after the cutting progress was complete. This process usually takes 30 to 50 days. The strong smell of burning meat in the room made me sick; in that moment I decided not to eat any meat for as long as I can.

I spent two days trying to photograph every aspect of the production of plastinated specimens. There was a workshop where the bodies were dipped in glue for about 50 days before any other process; the core step of plastination. And a workshop that froze the bodies and used machines to cut transparent body slices. All of this was so new to me that before I even realized, there were already nearly a thousand pictures on my cameras.

Dr Sui accompanied me throughout my two-day visit. He was friendly and helpful and gave me lots of freedom to shoot as well as lots of information on whatever I was photographing. He told me that the human bodies and animal carcasses were collected from medical universities, and that making each specimen took 4 people working on it for between 8 to 12 months.

Several days after the trip, it was still hard to believe what I had witnessed. I started to feel stranger and stranger about my own body, no wonder it is called “God’s masterpiece”.

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