Sunday, November 12, 2006


Okay, so Saturday four of us drove down to NYC to see Bodies: The Exhibition down at the South Street Seaport, in the old Fulton Fishmarket area. It was a surreal experience. For a lot of reasons.

First off, like so many lovely historic spaces, this one is now filled with mall stores: The Gap, Ann Taylor, J. Crew. Secondly, I had listened to NPR reports about some of the controversies surrounding this for-profit exhibit, one of two competing for customers willing to pay high ticket prices around the country. Questions remain about whether the bodies were obtained in a fully ethical manner, since the ones for Bodies were unclaimed in China, with only governmental (and now corporate) assurances that the dead were not political prisoners.

For me, that surreal feeling stemmed in large part from the nature of the exhibit--which can be felt in part from entering the official website. One passes a huge sign insisting "Bodies Don't Lie" as one enters. Then the placement of plasticized and partially dissected cadavers in athletic poses (or creative or intellectual--one was posed as a symphony conductor, another as Rodin's Thinker) suggests that somehow these folks are still capable of such activity.

And there's another thing: were they ever capable or involved or even interested in these activities? Why these particular activities?

These questions are particularly significant when considering this exhibition from the perspective of gender. The first female body is not encountered until about three-quarters (or more) through the exhibit, when we encounter a standing body that's been vertically sliced into four sections to demonstrate how fat collects. (And there we were, a passle of customers decidedly leaning toward the fat side, in our very American way. Really really surreal.) In the next room, we see women's bodies only, it seems, because the Bodies folks want to instruct us on the nature of the reproductive system.

Two fun factoids from this section: women are born with all the eggs they'll ever have for the rest of their lives (something researchers cast doubt upon over two years ago), and the clitoris (the label on this exhibit points to what is actually just the very tip of the clitoris) is analagous to the penis. Okay, so these are forgiveable errors, but I think are indicative of the ways that bodies--or at least, these representations of bodies--can, in fact, lie. (For more on the clitoris, read this.)

So, it may sound like I didn't like the whole experience, which isn't true. In fact, one area made the whole overheated, overcrowded time in the exhibit worthwhile, and that was the section on the circulatory system. By injecting the arteries of a cadaver with red plastic, then dissolving away the rest of the body, they're left with just the amazing coral-like lace of a person's circulatory system, suspended in fluid in a plexiglass case. Other parts of the exhibit used blue plastic to reveal veins, and another section used a similar process to show the bronchia.

I keep remembering that 1957 science movie Hemo the Magnificent, which I think I saw a dozen times during my public schooling experience. (Okay, maybe four.) I loved that movie--I loved learning that human beings are closely related to sea water, and seeing the red blood cells moving through capillaries like bumper cars in a single-file line. Hemo and friends would really enjoy those plasticized circulatory systems.


Krista said...

OMG -- you are the only person who's mentioned Hemo the Magnificent to me in years. We used to watch that *all* the time in junior high biology, where it was universally loved for the kitsch value. (That was the same biology teacher who let us watch vintage Popeye cartoons occasionally, too.)

Rhea said...

Up here in Boston we've got the other Body Worlds exhibit. I guess there are a lot of corpses to go around. Anyway, reading about your experience reminds me I have to get over to our science museum and check it out.