Under the skin

"Animals Inside Out" at the Natural History Museum.

Just behind the gigantic cast of a Diplodocus, which dominates the Natural History Museum’s entrance hall, is a gruesome example of the latest innovation in preservation: plastination. A camel, stomach exposed and a tri-section of its head visible demonstrates the process developed by Dr. Gunther von Hagen.

Following in the footsteps of Body Worlds, Hagen’s hugely successful and contentious exhibition, Animals Inside Out sees his team apply the same technique to some of the world’s largest creatures capturing their anatomy in fine detail. The process of plastination involves extracting all the water and fatty tissue from the animal before replacing them with polymers in a vacuum. This revolutionary method of preservation was invented by Hagen in 1977. However, it wasn’t possible to preserve larger specimens until the early 1990s. The process prevents the decay of the body and provides a fascinating insight into the anatomical workings of each specimen.

The most striking example of this takes the form of a large porbeagle shark. Having had its skin removed and colored liquid resin injected into the main arterial network, this fear-inspring predator is reduced to an intricate network of blood vessels. Floating, seemingly weightlessly, the delicate system of interweaving capillaries seems almost impossible, the crimson resin creating a luminous effect that reinforces its unreal aspect.

Though Animals Inside Out is designed to be factual, it’s emphasis on the biological and physiological, it is difficult not be distracted by its dazzling and often stomach-turning visuals.

Once you get used to the grisly spectacle of skinned animals, their insides take on a perverse kind of beauty. Indeed, where plastination is at its most impressive is in its preservation of the internal organs. The hare’s brain appears like a tiny, purple jewel; the cat’s brain, spinal cord and peripheral nerves, which we are told “give it the capability to react swiftly and with extraordinary precision”, sprawl across their case like creeping vines. There is something spectacular even in the towering giraffe whose body is sliced into thin cross sections allowing us to see its many vertebrae. Likewise, the elephant, which, weighing in at four tonnes is the biggest single specimen displayed in the museum, is remarkable if only due to its vast scale.

Despite their beauty, there is something unsettling about being surrounded by real animal specimens rather than models. Undoubtedly less macabre than Body Worlds, Hagen does not hesitate to remind his visitors that these creatures were living things; a foal frollicks with its plastinated stomach, digestive tract and other internal organs suspended next to it, a bull rears displaying its complex layers of muscle. Perhaps this is why the curators seem at pain to remind us that, "none of the animals in the exhibition have been killed for the purposes of plastination" and that "the Museum has undertaken due diligence to ensure that all the specimens comply with best collections practice". Nonetheless, some may argue that there is something distasteful about standing his skinless sheep, its intestines, liver and stomach revealed, on a sheepskin rug.

Animals Inside Out is on display at the Natural History Museum until 16 September.

Porbeagle Shark, Photo: Natural History Museum
Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
Show Hide image

Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game