The first thing that strikes me upon walking into Bodies: The Exhibition, the controversial human anatomy show whose run in Seattle has just been extended due to popular demand (Over 300,000 visitors have attended since the exhibit began showing on September 30, 2006) is that it looks like an art show. The room lighting is dim, punctuated by a flattering glow that illuminates the glass cases that appear in most of the rooms, holding almost every human body part, organ or cross section thereof imaginable, cut away from it’s original bearer, soaked in acetone until dehydrated, and then pumped full of silicone which hardens clear. The results of the process are all around us.
Bodies is flush with these cases, each displaying different parts of us. The central nervous system, complete with attached brain and eyes, is quite popular with visitors. Further into the exhibit, some of the most technically stunning pieces are the veins and arteries of human hands and legs, painstakingly removed from corpses, then reconstructed in the shape of the limb they were once so vital to, and displayed atop tall, slim black pillars. They’re beautiful, giving the impression of fine, lacey coral sculpted to gruesome perfection.
Of course, this is not coral.
As striking as the contents of some of the cases are, as informative as the placards accompanying them may be, the cases that dot the floor are by no means the main attractions here at Bodies. The main attractions are standing in the midst of the room. Or rather, they are not standing. They are dancing, or playing football. They are conducting unseen orchestras. They are winding up for pitches they’ll never throw. And in all of these situations, in each pose and arrangement, they are exposed in a fuller sense of the word than most us could have ever imagined.
Bereft of skin, every muscle, every tendon, every ligament of every specimen is on display for visitors. This display is, nominally, the reason for the strange stances of each corpse, the preservation of muscles in motion demonstrating the way in which each moves in relation to the others during the different actions depicted. Other specimens are distinctly less active. Take for example the skinless gentleman who has been split down the middle, the halves of him placed a few feet apart, illustrating for all interested parties the placement of organs within the human body. Or the bisected woman made a lurid model of symmetry.
As I walk around, I’m trying to maintain the open mind I showed up with. I’m making a valiant effort to hear how others around me react to the exhibit. A middle-aged gent whose discussing the finer points of the human digestive system with a woman I take to be his wife, remarks that “You can see how stuff just goes wrong with us.” And he’s right. The exhibit underlines the fragility and complexity of the human form.
Despite my best attempts at objectivity, words like ‘ghoulish’ and ‘macabre’ keep popping into my head. Words like ‘unnecessary’. As I wander the halls of bodies, I find myself abandoning my scientific curiosity about the human form. Every time I look at one of these cadavers, these people made into sculpture, I find myself wondering about their lives. I want to know who these people were.
It may not be impossible to write a review of Bodies: The Exhibition without addressing the controversy surrounding it, but it would be irresponsible. Premier Exhibitions, the Atlanta based company that produces the exhibition, has come under fire for using the unclaimed corpses of Chinese citizens in the exhibition. The specimens on display in Seattle are essentially rented by Premier from the Institue of Bio-plastination Products at Dailan Medical College in Chinas Liaoning province. The Institute’s director, Dr. Sui Hongjin, worked closely with Dr. Gunther von Hagens, who pioneered the process of ‘plastination,’ and whose Body Worlds exhibits were the first to venture into the global market seeking the mighty corpse gawking dollar, a multi-million dollar a year market of which Bodies: The Exhibition now claims no small portion.
Human rights watchdogs have barked loud at Bodies. Taking into account China’s atrocious record on human rights issues, and the less than forthcoming demeanor of their government, critics point out that these anonymous corpses could easily be political dissidents or practitioners of Falun Gong, a religious sect which is outlawed in China. Premier claims to have government documents certifying that none of the cadavers were murder victims or prisoners, but has declined to release the documents, citing confidentiality.
In the end, the circumstances under which these people died are secondary to the fact that Premier does not dispute: none of the people on display here gave consent for their body to be displayed in this way after death. This issue looms large in my mind as I walk through the exhibit–-the sight of the bodies themselves is not grotesque. The violation of something very basic here is. Even if these are not prisoners, it’s hard to believe that any of the people here--for these are undeniably people--would have chosen for anything like this to be their final rest. And that very basic choice was denied to every person in this exhibit in the name of somebody in Atlanta making a buck.
There are people this won’t bother, and those that it will. Before walking in, I would have counted myself among the former. I was wrong.
As I leave, I’m confronted with the stateliest of the figures so far, a well built chap, tallish and lean, his arm suspended in a permanent farewell to those who come to view the exhibition. On the opposite wall, a sign assures visitors that these bodies “have been treated with the dignity and respect they so richly deserve.”
Immediately following this sign, I enter the gift shop, where I can buy a replica human skull, plastic eyeballs, a brain keychain or a T-shirt to commemorate my visit. All of which leads me to believe that Premier Exhibitions has a very low estimation of just how much “dignity and respect” the people in their exhibit deserve.
Tickets have been reduced from $26.50 to $21 for Western students and alumni.
Western students can get the discount by presenting their student ID at the box office or entering the promotional code WWUSTU online. Alums just need to show their alum card or using the promocode WWUALUM.
Offer good through March 18.
Bodies: The Exhibition is on display at 800 Pike Street in Seattle, across the Street from the Convention Center.