Bodies on Display: Queer Bioethics in Popular Culture

Bodies on Display, Queer Bioethics in Popular Culture


ABSTRACT: This article analyzes how two recent visual cultural productions map the exterior and interior of human bodies, and enable or foreclose a queer bioethical critique of biopolitics: German artist/anatomist Gunther von Hagens’s Bodyworlds exhibits of plastinated corpses and U.S. transgender photographer Loren Cameron’s Black and White Self-Portraits Collection. I contrast their negotiation of the spatial genealogies of medicine’s visual culture, and how they invite or discourage affective, ethical encounters with these histories, given the spatial contexts of their exhibition (Von Hagen’s works are displayed in science and technology museums as “edutainment”, while Cameron’s photographs are displayed in LGBTQ student centers, circulated online, and published in LGBTQ books and magazines). Demonstrating the porous boundaries between medical and popular visual culture, Cameron’s and von Hagens’s works bring together multiple visual mediums including medical photography, freak shows, sculpture, photographic portraiture, painting, medical museums, and medical imaging technologies, which shape the ways spectator bodies are invoked and queer bioethical encounters are made possible. This article explores the ways that such ethical encounters hinge on spectators being touched, being affected, by visual culture in often unruly ways. While both visual cultural productions bring spectator bodies into the visual works through mapping human bodies, I argue here that the divergent methods they employ significant shape the ethical potential that each can offer to feminist, queer, and transgender projects seeking to disrupt the violences of biopolitics in our contemporary moment.

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  • Published:
    Journal of Homosexuality 63.3 (2016)