Bones of Contention

Andrew Hultkrans on “Bodies . . . The Exhibition”

New York

Left and right: Views of “Bodies . . . The Exhibition” (Photos: Bill Serne for the St. Petersburg Times)

I’ve long been a fan of cadaver gags—medical students mailing organs and body parts with cards reading “Have a heart” or “Thought you needed a hand,” or posing undissected corpses on campus benches in rakish postures, leaving them to leer at passersby. Hence I was surprised to find little gallows humor in “Bodies . . . The Exhibition,” a pricey, formaldehyde-for-the-whole-family show of jaunty, expressive stiffs and their constituent parts. Strained playfulness, yes—several specimens are pressed into everyman roles as basketball players, symphony conductors, sprinters, even Rodin’s Thinker—but all in the service of earnest, educational points about muscle function or the nervous system. George Romero’s zombie hordes wouldn’t be caught dead with these skinless stereotypes, drained as they are of all wit, originality, and vital bodily fluids. Their styleless voguing takes the un- from uncanny and the fun out of funereal.

Housed at the South Street Seaport Exhibition Centre in a building previously occupied by fishmongers, “Bodies” eschews the funky decay the port was famous for. Rather, the exhibition space is as antiseptic as a newly opened GAP. So too is the packed-in holiday crowd, composed, as far as I could tell, of tourists and borough families—average Americans satisfying their hunger for the truly flayed flesh and full-frontal genitalia Hollywood denies them. The crowd’s responses—or lack thereof—may have been the most shocking aspect of the show. I didn’t hear one “eww . . . gross!” from the many children in attendance, or even a contextualizing lecture from a concerned parent. The only exchange worth reporting came from a twentysomething couple staring blankly at an artfully splayed female pelvis. Man: “Kinda puts me off doing the deed.” Woman: [bemused silence].

This show clearly wasn’t designed for sickos like me, but beneath its seemingly innocent science-fair surface lies some genuinely disturbing viscera. Organized by Premier Exhibitions, Inc. of Atlanta, Georgia, “Bodies” is both the latest iteration of a trend in controversial cadaver exhibits and an example of the McDonaldization of the museum business. Premier Exhibitions, along with Arts and Exhibitions International (which is run by a former Clear Channel executive), specializes in touring megashows of audience-tested materials—Titanic wreckage, King Tut’s treasures, plastinated cadavers—with broad, obvious appeal. The shows are typically mounted in otherwise respectable art museums and freighted with hefty ticket prices and blockbuster publicity. In the case of “Bodies,” the $24.50 ticket may be justified by the $25 million Premier spent in acquiring the collection of cadavers, but it’s blood money nonetheless.

As I gazed at a ten-foot-long array of a horizontally sliced man, parsed with a butcher’s precision into thin cuts of braciola, I couldn’t help but think of the dodgy source of the bodies themselves. Premier purchased the remains of the twenty-two people on display along with 260 other human specimens from Dalian University in northern China, which, according to the New York Times, was “previously implicated in the use of executed prisoners for commercial purposes, having supplied bodies to Gunter von Hagens, the German entrepreneur who started the first traveling show of the dead, ‘World of Bodies.’” Rather than steer clear of scandal by seeking another source, Premier not only made a deal with Dalian but also hired von Hagen’s former Chinese partner, Dr. Sui Hongjin, to broker it. This gives the lie to the exhibition’s website disclaimer that “Premier Exhibitions, Inc. is not affiliated with any other organizer of human anatomy exhibitions, including Gunther von Hagens, Gerhard Perner, or Genlife Biomedical.” Premier claims that the bodies are those of “the poor, the unclaimed, or the unidentified,” and that it was shown confidential documents ensuring their ethical provenance, but given China’s record of human rights abuses, particularly of prisoners, this is cold comfort.

So what remains of these remains? Beyond the silly poses and the visually arresting circulatory system room—whose anthropomorphic arrangements of scarlet, illuminated veins and arteries recall the Mantle twins’ operating theater in Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers—there’s the “ick” factor (intestines and other specialty meats), Surgeon General-style moralizing (cancerous lungs and sclerotic livers), odd ideas about family entertainment (Penises! Labia!), and unexamined chauvinism (of the two female bodies present, one, sliced vertically into quarters, is used to illustrate obesity). Worth $25? A double-feature rental of Fantastic Voyage and Evil Dead 2 over a deli platter would do the trick for the same price.