Shocking. Unbelievable. Riveting. Produces strong mixed feelings. These are my reactions to Bodies. My other feeling was regret that I’d just had a wonderful lunch of ramen soup with pork floating in it.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Bodies phenomen, it is a Chinese entertainment enterprise that’s basically a bunch of dead bodies and body parts, soaked in polymer plastic, dissected in various creative ways, posed, and put up for display. This travelling show has generated controversy because the source of the bodies is undocumented. Most of them seem to be young Asian people in fairly good condition. Where did they come from?
The American company that puts the show on in the USA is called Premier exhibits. Here is one of their semi-offensive websites. http://www.bodiesrevealed.com/index-home.html
And for some reason, there is another: http://www.bodiestheexhibition.com/
According to the Seattle Times, there are about twenty of these travelling shows operating concurrently. The Bodies site says that each show uses 14 bodies, but that doesn’t count the fetus room. Or the numerous glass cases with body parts in them.
There were at least 25 fetuses in the fetus room, which is separated into a dark room with an advisory sign on the outside. The fetus room was the most interesting and non-prurient part of the show. A five-week-old fetus is a fully formed human being, all parts visible. The tiny fetuses were displayed in bottles of formaldehyde solution and also dry, preserved in plastic. Although I’m a firm believer in women’s right to chose, I have to say that I was affected by this display. If a woman is considering an abortion, this exhibit might well change her mind. But we should all be fully informed.
There were many cases of body parts, everything from hearts to knee joints, to sexual organs, to entire arms and legs. They were all poorly labelled and annotated. There are no disclaimers on the superficial nature of the labels.
The most striking display was an installation with what at first appears to be two bodies. One part is a skeleton and the other is muscles and soft organs. These are, according to the sign, actually from the same body, carefully dissected.
My friend Susan and I weren’t sure what to expect. We agreed that after the first five minutes, we both felt about 5% queasy. It wasn’t about the death, it was about the display element of it. There was no doubt that the displays were for show rather than medical edification. The bodies had glaring (glass?) eyeballs set in stripped heads. They had eyelashes of dubious origin. They had eyebrow-shaped swatches of “skin” with no resemblance to anything found in nature.
We were offended by the posing of the bodies. Almost all were male. These were all posed in active positions, mostly playing sports. One guy was playing tennis (with racket), one was shooting darts, another had a soccer ball he was manipulating, and so on. But the lone female full body was posed coquettishly, hands on hips, her lips in a leer. Her face appeared artificially feminized, although they stopped short of applying lipstick.
Accompanying many of the bodies, there were large, well executed drawings. Printed callouts on the drawings labelled the body parts. However, the labelling was miserably superficial, identifying only a fraction of the organs, nerves, etc.
One excellent feature of the show was that they employed quite a few medical students who walked around in their white lab coats answering questions intelligently.
This is an experience one only needs to have once. I did take a few illicit pictures, of course. Their depiction of the circulatory system illustrates my point about their allegiance to showmanship instead of edification. See the picture of the exquisite (and real, they say) map of arteries and veins and the heart, all done in a uniform and lovely shade of red. It is excellent design but about as accurate as a Barbie doll.
Of course anything that draws people in and allows them to learn something new is a good thing. This is a show, not a medical display, (oh – did I say that?) and it does fascinate the general public.
However, controversy continues. 20-20 did a feature a couple of years ago, pointing out that there was no oversight in China for the source of the cadavers. In 2006, reporting from Dalian, China for the New York Times, David Barboza described “a ghastly new underground mini-industry” with “little government oversight, an abundance of cheap medical school labor and easy access to cadavers and organs.” Given China’s general track record of dishonesty in practically everything they produce, this yenta feels that the objections to the show are well founded. Had to see it anyway, though.
Of course, Bodies has a gift shop. Lots of keychains with plastic spines, hearts, or other body parts. (I bought two with plastic ears.) They also had some rather lovely framed prints of old medical texts, annotated in elegant script.
My own personal disclaimer: Yes, I think it’s crappy that the owners of Bodies are making millions of dollars by the commercial display of dead people who may have been murdered, sold, and then dissected for display. But I am not a good enough person to stay away from it. And I’m nosy. I’m a yenta.
Read a great article about Bodies from Trent Moorman, for a Seattle alternative newspaper, The Stranger. http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/eating-beef-jerky-at-the-bodies-exhibit/Content?oid=3486674
Photos to come.