Welcome to Body World
Local musician reports on his visit to the land of the dead
“There’s a place down the street; Seven Xs. What does that mean? Maybe it’s … girls without skin.”
It’s the ultimate exhibitionism: People donating their entire bodies, minus the skin but keeping the sex organs, to be posed in absurd tableaux for a sea of voyeurs who’ve turned out in droves for months at the “Body Worlds” exhibition at the California Science Center in Los Angeles’ Exposition Park.
I prefer landscape paintings, but my recent L.A. hosts bought me a ticket, and my presence was required.
Through a technique called “Plastination” invented by German doctor and curator Gunther von Hagens, moisture is sucked from the donated cadavers, which are then coated and filled with plastic for preservation. The lack of real eyeballs, moist body mass and immortal souls and the added artificial coloration give the exhibit a mannequins-meet-the-butcher shop effect. Many specimens are in a state of advanced pathology, and it’s remarkable how large the tumors and hemorrhages were before the bodies succumbed.
The flayed cadavers smoke cigarettes, wear Panama hats, ride skateboards, perform ballet, play basketball, do cartwheels, ride flayed horses, swim through the air on wires, hold their own skin aloft (unlined and with the consistency of cowhide). A giant rides a bicycle. Bodies are bisected like whole beef halves, heads are sectioned in tiers (like a painting by Magritte); the disemboweled hold their entrails like bowling balls.
The “Winged Man” has his musculature peeled at 90-degree angles like the Spitter’s hood in Jurassic Park.
One body explodes à la Dalí.
Entire arterial systems are mapped in 3-D (injected with plastic and sprayed red); hearts, livers, lungs, spleens, ovaries, breasts, scrotums are displayed under glass like gems or seashells. Noseless faces are adorned with skinless lips and glass eyes as they rotate on a spit.
The members of my little group all felt that the reactions of the common folk were the highlight of the show (the chic arrived as we were leaving at 10 p.m.), which covers 20,000 square feet on two levels of the Science Center.
People spoke of their own maladies and dead relatives as they perused diseased organs, stroke clots and aneurisms in fossilized brain slices. Supermodel-faced girls leered at skinless albino male genitalia, while guys scrutinized sliced breasts the color and consistency of paté and agate Carnelian.
An old man exclaimed to another old man, ‘Twenty-one days. That’s three weeks!” as they perused a fetus in a plastic cube. He repeated the phrase until the other geriatric screamed, ‘I can figure it out!”
The larger fetuses (some up to 36 weeks) are like macabre baby dolls, all smooth and shiny. A bisected pregnant mother has the fetus still inside. The crowds were so dense around the embryos I had to pass (as I did around the similarly busy booth for donating oneself to the ongoing exhibit).
The gift shop even has cadaver mouse pads, eyeball cups, cranial paperweights, games, etc.
The Body Worlds show has traveled the world, and this second version, Body Worlds 2, with new specimens, went up Jan. 29 and will be on display through March 27. Details on planned future touring exhibits have yet to be announced.
In this age of televised surgery and reality TV, the masses like viewing themselves stripped to the bone, and they’re not squeamish. First they argue, analyze and insult one another in furnished compounds; next they eat organs and maggots until they vomit.
Now this! And though the people at this show were identifying with their own bodies, the brain and soul were negligible. It’s not enough to show plastic-surgery makeovers on TV; now it’s people having 30 procedures … and counting. Anorexic stars are on E.T., and the most perfect looking of them (who can’t act) are worshipped as our royalty.
These corpses were selected for their perfection, too, as were the historical figures on that asteroid cemetery in the Twilight Zone episode with Cecil Kellaway and the handful of patrons who thought it cool to join ‘The Body World.”
I came away with a sense that without the soul we’re slabs of meat identical to the horse that was also on display (cannibalism seemed OK). Even the skin proved illusory—yet I still ogled the girls.
Dan Cohen is a Paradise musician and occasional CN&R contributor whose latest CD, Dannyland, is available on Anti Records.