I see dead people

Body, no skinWent 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.

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  1. M.
    Posted 2/20/2006 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Alex – The placement of the bodies in Bodies is surely meant to echo the anatomical drawings (16th century) of Vesalius, who pictures his skeletons and musclemen in among maps and books in libraries or outdoors, on the playing fields of the universities of the time.

    But I’m not certain that science today is being assailed by the forces of mystery – it seems to me that it is the forces of rigid and dogmatic religion who are the ones lined up on the 50 yard line against the scientists. I remain convinced that science is one way that we attempt to approach the mysterious in our lives, and I think that your description of reactions to the exhibit may demonstrate this.

    The real question is: if I leave my body to science, could I end up at the Met?

  2. Kara
    Posted 2/21/2006 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    I saw this exhibition last year in Chicago. It was absolutely facinating.

  3. patricia
    Posted 11/29/2006 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    I have seen the exhibition in LA and the day after
    they took it away. i wish they would bring it back
    over here.

  4. Frank Shifreen
    Posted 11/15/2007 at 12:43 am | Permalink

    These bodies are dead people, who did not give their permission to be used in this way.(There are three companies who run traveling exhibitions) It is a good possibility that many of the bodies were murdered or executed. There is no real provenance( a paper trail) for any of the cadavers in the exhibition. I think it is not endlessly fascinating, but macabre strange, even bizarre that an exhibit of this nature would be allowed in so many places in the civilized world.
    It seems to me like Silence of the Lambs made real. Or some of the artifacts of Nazi Germany. I live in New York
    I am a teacher in the school system, a well-known artist and a doctoral candidate at Columbia University

  5. alex
    Posted 11/15/2007 at 1:01 am | Permalink

    Frank: Thanks for this. Frankly speaking, I am untroubled by the question of provenance. I understand why someone’s family might be upset if their loved ones have been misused, but I refuse to condemn someone for whom there is no proof–or really any clear evidence–of grave-robbing. The questions are just that: questions.

    To conflate this with Silence of the Lambs (torture) and Nazi Germany (genocide) seems hyperbolic to me without clearer evidence of any real wrongdoing. People die, and leave behind bodies, every day. Perhaps that is the central message of the exhibition. I hope you will actually see the exhibition before condemning it.

  6. Ben Tabe
    Posted 1/17/2008 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    I am going there tomorrow for my 10th grade field trip.

  7. Ben Tabe
    Posted 1/17/2008 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    O and by the way that is definetly not like silence of the lambs!

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