January 29th, 2004

krazy koati

A peek inside

Last weekend I attended an allegedly controversial show at the Expo convention centre. It was the Body Worlds program, billed as ``the anatomical exhibition of real human bodies.'' The exhibition is of human corpses, preserved by ``plastination,'' a process developed by Body Worlds founder Doctor Gunther von Hagens in 1978. The process replaces body fluids and fats with resin, silicone rubber, and polyesters, preserving it indefinitely and making the body's organs look like the imitation leather seats from a 1982 Grand Marquis.

The exhibition featured many bodies, some whole, some sliced open, some disassembled into small pieces showing just a heart, or femur, or other subsystem. It was feared before it opened that the show would be too graphic, and public authorities debated placing age requirements on attendance. In the end they just placed a warning outside the show that some of the exhibits were graphic, and set off an enclosed area at the far end where people could sit and recuperate.

The question to my mind is: is this exhibitionism? Granted there is some educational value to it; biology textbooks tend to separate the systems of the body so that each exists in its own universe and one never sees them integrated, and Visible Body-type models tend to give an abstract version of anatomy, without the sloppiness and variations of real bodies.

But it's difficult to not feel depressed by being in a room with dozens of dead bodies, and when a pack of teenagers peeks at a set of tumorous organs and goes ``eww'' and giggles nervously it's also difficult not to feel that what you're there for isn't learning; it's to see if you can look at horrible things and take it. (The corpses, I note, are all of volunteers, who felt the exhibit was a useful contribution to science and education. Many were also organ donors. But necessarily they are then bodies of people who died of old age, or who died of illnesses, some of them birth defects.)

Some of the displays achieve the status of art. The Body Worlds publicity likes to point out a figure posed at a chess board, so one can see the muscles and nerves and skeleton of a person actually doing a normal activity. There are similar figures fully or partly disassembled in the act of fencing, or pole-vaulting, or hanging from gymnastic rings. The most striking of these to my eye was a runner whose skeleton was posed next to his muscular system. Another row compellingly displayed just the circulatory system for a human leg, next to that of a chicken and of a rabbit, figures traced out by a red ribbon suspended in midair.

What to make of it? After a few days thinking it over I'm less certain.

Trivia: At the close of his 1933-34 performing tour of the Soviet Union, Harpo Marx was called upon by the State Department to sneak a packet of letters back to the United States. Harpo told his Soviet observer that he was a spy and was smuggling the designs for the Ford tractor out of Russia. Source: Harpo Speaks!, Harpo Marx and Rowland Barber.

Currently reading: The Gathering Storm, Winston Churchill.