The bodies of willing donors are injected with plastic, their flesh burned away leaving a complex web of their circulatory system in a lurid scarlet. The covering of the skull is nearly complete. Delicate filigree encases the space where the lungs used to be. Twisted ropes run along missing bones to delicate feet and fragile fingers.

Other corpses are reduced to the bone, the more familiar skeleton. That too is drilled, injected with plastic and then burnt away, so only the artifice is left. No human remains are used in the rest of this project. They just look human.

A pine falls in the forest, among childhood haunts. Many are watching. On site, the bark is hacked away, chisels inserted and hammered, turning the living wood into straight lines. Into a cross, the pale wood surprising as it leans against its still living neighbour. How fast it changed from branch and twig to symbol.

Over months these elements are brought together: the bone, the blood, the tree. The result is a red dancer, slumped from nails through those tiny bones, head hanging, bright against the wood, black now from the carpenter’s blow torch. A stark, uncompromising beautiful portrait of death.

No-one, at least no westerner, however secular in outlook and upbringing, can look on it just as death, just an unconventional death mask. This is indeed a crucifixion.

Gunter von Hagens has made a career of public anatomisation. I’d not heard of him, but he performed an autopsy live in British TV in 2002, he’s been threatened with all sorts of legal and religious sanctions. He does controversy. So far so familiar. The channel 4 documentary also interviewed Andres Serrano, and showed Madonna singing fro a giant cross in New York. He is part of a major strand of European art, exploring this particular symbol. He knows that of course, he knows that the work will provoke, and says he hopes it will be a route to peaceful debate. That seems strikingly optimistic to me.

This is a man who knows about the realism of hope. He has advanced Parkinson’s Disease, and during the filming we see his 50 tablets a day, the scars from electrodes implanted in his brain, the deterioration in his speech and movement. The commitment he has not only to staying alive, but doing what makes him unique, special. What he loves. Living with a close family member with the same condition, I recognise that fighting spirit, the energy it takes, the respect it demands.

This was an extraordinary film, intellectually and emotionally demanding. For the squeamish, even physically hard work. It was so sad that van Hagens was not there at the end, to see the piece brought together. He was too ill. That scene was filmed on 20 February, less than seven weeks ago. Even so, I could wish we had heard less about the PD, and more about the art work, even spent more time actually seeing the finished piece. From what little we did see, his Jesus is amazing, haunting and even frightening. Before you jump to conclusions, watch the film, see the artwork, then decide.

Crucifixion, Channel 4, available from 4OD.

About Sarah Tanburn

I'm a writer, a sailor and a strategic adviser to public organisations. Visit my websites to find out more.
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