Innard beauty

Another touring-corpses show proves that death really is permanent

Oh, how our body-consciousness bedevils us. It’s not just all the movies and video games in collusion and coy resignation to their profitable glee of carnage. It’s on view in absurd extremes even at the grocery-store cash register, where headlines bark about flatter abs and fatter bastards and yoga poses and tattoo choices and stem-cell sources and regular human obliteration by improvised explosives or other much more sophisticated and expensive devices.

And, by default, the body becomes a proving ground for all the weird, often uncomfortable ways in which technology abets human self-awareness. As any armchair futurist or religious zealot can tell you, we can now manipulate the natural order of things to unequivocally unnatural ends, which can’t help but affect the way we live.

And die. Take, for instance, the process of replacing water and fat with silicone polymers to leave deceased anatomical specimens conveniently rubberized and permanently preserved. Now practiced for nearly three decades, this nifty procedure has been an immeasurable boon to anatomists and medical students the world over—as it also has been to the recent vogue of sensational globe-trotting shows of human corpses. Hence, Bodies Revealed, an elaborate display of laminated skinless dead people and their parts, which arrived here after a highly lucrative three-year international tour, to open last weekend at 2040 Alta Arden Way.

For this peculiar pageant we can thank the Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions Inc., whose other arguably morbid self-described “blockbuster” show, preceding several incarnations of Bodies, was Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition. The company also has been involved with exhibitions related to King Tut and to Princess Diana. It seems the dead don’t get much peace in which to rest with Premier Exhibitions around. Rather, they’re consigned to publicly haunt the living, who pay handsomely—your Bodies will cost you $24 a head—for the privilege of being so haunted.

Not that it isn’t worth it. Come on: nine galleries worth of anonymous corpses playing cards or kicking soccer balls or just standing around, flayed every which way or sliced into fine fillets—with probably enough exposed and objectified genitals to strike more than a few viewers as at least vaguely pornographic? Now that’s something you don’t see every day. Though of course you would, if it weren’t for your own and everybody else’s skin.

“It’s not a voyeuristic thing at all,” said Dr. Roy Glover, the exhibit’s medical overseer and spokesperson, on the phone last week. “It’s educational. When I was a young person, no one ever talked about the body. It was always sort of a sexual thing. We could sneak around and try to learn about it. We made a lot of mistakes, because it wasn’t a very scientific process of discovery.” You can see how things might have turned out very badly, and why general medical education matters.

Glover made clear that the exhibit’s primary intention is to encourage positive lifestyle choices. “We’re not talking about death and dying in that gruesome way that Hollywood creates,” he said. “The more we can get away from the Hollywood picture, the better.”

OK, unless you allow yourself to admit that maybe a little gory zombie-movie levity might mitigate the antiseptic atmosphere—not to mention the moralizing. All of the donated bodies—and yes, they were donated—died from natural causes, Glover patiently explained; sometimes those causes just happened to include the grotesque effects of preventable diseases. “People will look at those organs and say, ‘Boy, those don’t look good. Can’t you make them look better?’ And we say no. When disease afflicts, it destroys.”

So it does. A tar-blackened lung or cirrhotic liver is a plenty compelling argument for giving up cigarettes or booze. But it’s also an abstraction; more terrifying by far, we all know, is to witness the failures of those ruined organs firsthand, in living, suffering people. For real reasons to quit, how about the smoker’s hacking cough, the drinker’s jaundiced, sunken skin?

The real benefits of Bodies Revealed are more generally philosophical, and even purely aesthetic. Here is where to consider anew the leveling aphorism that on the inside we all really are the same. Or to behold unexpected organic beauties—say, in the exquisite delicacy of alveoli or ear bones or gossamer networks of capillaries. This is not a freak show, but how right it is to trade in freakiness, willfully blurring the line between the gape and the avid gaze. It asserts that we all deserve to see what our innards look like, even as it leaves us to wonder whether we should be able to see someone else’s. Wonderment, in fact, is what this exhibition is all about. For all its surgical sterility, Bodies Revealed becomes artful almost in spite of itself.

Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp,” from 1632.

Is it so hard, then, to consider it a descendant of Rembrandt’s famous “Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp"? What’s still stirring in that painting today is not the exposure of flesh itself, but the varied reactions of the depicted scene’s onlookers—their telling glances: at the cadaver, at the doctor, at each other, at us. When the image was created in 1632, public anatomy lessons had become all the rage in Europe; by century’s end these ostensibly educational endeavors had all but surrendered their scientific imprimatur to the spectacle-intensive enticements of popular entertainment—drawing crowds of hundreds at a time.

Maybe the essential difference today is just that the corpses have a longer shelf life.

“In our exhibition we do solicit people to consider whether they’d donate their bodies to medical science,” Glover said. “We do it for medical education as well as tissue donation. Donating forms now come with a check box for whether or not they’d be willing to have their body permanently preserved. It’s hard to imagine what a person is going to say when that question is asked.”

But it’s getting less hard. “Great exhibit,” one comment-poster says on the Bodies Revealed Web site, “can’t wait to die. Hope to donate my body; ie everlasting life. Immortal at last.”

As some of us become inured to displays of lifeless flesh, and others sign up to become them (thousands already have), our collective body image continues to evolve. From the paintings in the caves of our earliest ancestors to the wooden figure models so common in art-school classrooms today, it would seem that human anatomy never runs out of artistic potential. So rest assured (if not in peace) that Bodies Revealed offers merely one way of realizing it. For another, try the Library Gallery at Sac State, where Field of Life: The Body in Contemporary Korean Art opens this weekend and runs through February.

Sculptural works by Jun Kyung Sun in Field of Life at Sac State’s Library Gallery now through February.