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A detail from Wangechi Mutu's I belong to you, you belong to me, 2007.

The human compulsion to know and understand the inside of the body is persistent and profound. What could be closer to hand and yet still so veiled in mystery? It's a quest that dates back at least to the time of Leonardo da Vinci. His anatomical drawings, on view at the Vancouver Art Gallery this winter in homage to the city's Olympic moment, register his fascination with what he understood to be God's handiwork. But they also signal a nascent split between mind and body, with the mind scrutinizing and mapping flesh and bone as something distinct from itself, a meaty carapace in which the soul and intellect reside.

Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Man is on loan from the Queen's Royal Collection at Windsor, and includes the entirety of Manuscript A, a sheaf of some 18 drawings (many of them two-sided) derived from cadaver studies the artist made at the University of Pavia, Italy, during the winter of 1510, 500 years ago and three years before the artist's departure for the French court, where he would live out his last days. Made late in life, in the aftermath of his greatest artistic triumphs, the drawings register his full speculation on man's incarnate state. Most likely acquired for the Royal Collection during the reign of Charles II, they have never before have they been exhibited in full.

Marking the occasion, the VAG's companion group exhibition, Visceral Bodies, updates Leonardo's inquiry with an array of contemporary Canadian and international art that expands our thinking about how we inhabit our bodies today. Leonardo nudged us down this road of science, but he'd marvel now at where that path has brought us.

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The anatomy studies offer rare aesthetic pleasures: Leonardo's natural sense of design as he arranges his figures across the surface of the page, the delicacy of his drawing and shading techniques, and, for the art lover, the chance to glimpse the telltale gesture lifted from his artistic oeuvre. (One skeletal anatomy study of a foot, for example, echoes a pose from his earlier Virgin and Child with St. Anne, sans flesh.)

In this show, though, Leonardo's kindred powers of scientific observation are the main event. His anatomical drawings were not published until 1898, and even at that late date they were advanced. What is so hard to fathom today, though, is the pioneering nature of his efforts. The body was largely unknown and unmapped in 1510, with autopsies frowned upon and largely proscribed. In the medieval imagination, the inside of the body was presumed to be like a tree: perfectly symmetrical within as without, with life force emanating from the core. What Leonardo waded into, wielding the scalpel himself, was a gooey, liver-coloured and gradually decomposing terra incognita (remember: no formaldehyde) that is imaginatively unavailable to us in our era of MRIs and CT scans. How did he know what he was looking at? The show takes us back to that moment.

Thus we look on as Leonardo discovers the spine, the rib cage and its supporting latticework of tendon and muscle, the torque of the shoulder (the view gently rotated by degrees to allow a fuller account, like a figure study by Eadweard Muybridge), the intricate engineering of the hands and feet, with and without muscle and skin.

Here and there, Leonardo seems to worry at the seam between body and soul. In the margins to a facial study, he inscribes in his tiny mirror writing: "h is the muscle of anger; p is the muscle of sorrow," locating the lower and upper brow, respectively. A suite of shoulder and arm studies includes a soulful portrait of an old man, presumably the autopsy subject, as if to ask: Where in the flesh does identity reside? To read the translations of Leonardo's notes and marginalia, provided in full in the exhibition catalogue, is to sit at his shoulder and hear him think. We become witness to the swift flight of his imagination, drilling down here and there and then darting on, sketching out future investigative forays. It's breathtaking.

As the human body came increasingly to be known, post-Leonardo, other questions have arisen, particularly as machines came to displace us and technology re-ordered our understanding of nature's design. Where Leonardo was God-revering, artists today largely inhabit a secular world, with science the new deity. Visceral Bodies, organized by VAG chief curator Daina Augaitis, shows us the body seen through this contemporary lens, reflecting our wonder, our fear and our growing fantasies of control.

Hiroko Okada's digitally enhanced photograph Future Plan #2 (2003) shows two nude men seemingly in advanced states of pregnancy. In Early Self-Portrait (2007), the British sculptor Marc Quinn presents the sculptural form of a human fetus at three months, enlarged to the size of a pumpkin and carved from pink marble - a grotesque creature that seems part snail, part seahorse and part organ-bearing kidney bean, sporting a snout-like blowhole. Antony Gormley, also from the U.K., is showing a delicate, three-dimensional hanging sculpture made from fine metal filaments, an airy confection suggesting the molecular structure of DNA. Looking within, we continue to find strange new worlds.

Augaitis also gives us the body inscribed by memory (the feathery figure studies of the late Canadian artist Betty Goodwin) or understood through cultural norms. In the photo collages of Kenyan-born New Yorker Wangechi Mutu, for example, the fierce pressures of sexual and racial roles erupt into view. In one - a portrait of a woman built from various cut-up photographs arranged atop an antique medical illustration - the image of a vagina dilated by a speculum is planted in mid-brow.

Teresa Margolles's hair-raising audio work Sounds of the Morgue (2006), though, leaves the most to the imagination. The work consists, simply, of the audio recording of an autopsy, conducted in a hospital in Guadalajara, Mexico. We hear the wetness of the tissue and organs as they are lifted apart, and the subtle but horrifying sound of flesh filleting and cracking of bone.

It's a shocking reminder of our true physical state, stripped of humanistic aggrandizement: a mess of guts in a skin bag, prone to excretion and suppuration. It ain't pretty but it's real - about as far from Olympian mastery and machine-tooled physical perfection as it's possible to be. Trust an artist to get us there.

Leonardo da Vinci: Mechanics of Man continues at the VAG until May 2; Visceral Bodies remains on view until May 16.

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