Went to see the Bodies: the Exhibition. For those unfamiliar with the exhibition, it features twenty bodies and over two hundred organs that have been dissected and “plastinated,” infusing them with a silicon substance that stops the process of decay and preserves targeted tissues. The results provide a way of presenting human bodies so that you are able to see everything in context (well, at least in terms of structure).
The exhibition has been assailed on a number of grounds: from taste to legality. In London and Tampa, there were questions as to whether there was proper consent granted by the former owners of the bodies. But there was always the suggestion (to my mind) that this had more to do with questions of taste than of the rights of the deceased. The show is “showy,” and not presented in the dry sort of way some commentators might prefer. In the European show, a rider is shown, skin flayed, with his mount similarly revealed, holding the brains of horse in one hand and rider in the other. In the US exhibition, one body carries a football, at full charge, another shoots a three-pointer, basketball in hand. One arrangement has a person balancing against what at first seems like another person, arms outstretched as they lean back. It quickly becomes clear that it is the same person, skeleton on one side, musculature on the other.
Particularly in the above descriptions, it seems fairly ghoulish, to be sure. A sense of the macabre nature of the exhibit–it is never possible to forget that these are human remains, no matter how heavily treated they may be–no doubt was why an hour-long line for tickets snaked through a cold Sunday afternoon at the Fulton Market. But the exhibit itself is endlessly fascinating. It’s hard to know what part of that fascination is voyeuristic: the ability to see inside another person, not through an ultrasound or MRI, but directly through ones own sense organs; including at one point, touching the plastinated organs. But that alone did not explain the fascination and respectful observation of these huge crowds.
While walking through the galleries, I was reminded of Walter Benjamin and the “aura” of human-produced art. These bodies had just such an aura. I have no doubt at all that in observing these displays, I would be unable to discern the difference between a plastinated human brain, and a detailed model of a human brain. But the fact that these had once been living tissues imbued them with an authenticity that would be difficult to match.
Almost as fascinating as the exhibition itself, however, were those who thronged around the bodies, carefully examining them, talking about their structure with their friends. The audience reflected New York (albeit a New York that could afford the ticket to this show), and while there seemed to be a concentration of folks who had studied anatomy, some of these amateur anatomists had yet to finish seventh grade. It was thrilling to watch a seventh-grader carefully explain to his mother the structure and function of a displayed heart, and another student–this time probably pre-med–do the same for his mother as they examined the muscles of the neck.
Indeed, the energy of discovery at the exhibit was palpable. I have been to so many museums where visitors passed over an exhibit with barely a glance, floating though without engaging or really looking at what was presented. Here, there were no bored teenagers sitting at the periphery, and it was rare to see people pass over a presentation. People circled the full bodies, crouching to get better views, or pointing as they followed a sinuous artery. To see people who had shaken off the standards of “taste,” who–though as I said, may have been drawn to the exhibition in part because of its macabre nature–seemed to quickly shed their morbid interest for one more analytical was invigorating and made me hope for a country where science is increasingly assailed by the forces of mystery. As I finished touring the galleries, I only could hope that some American museum would be able to make this part of their permanent collection.