Monday, April 10, 2006

Step Right Up to the Anatomy Lesson

By FRANCIS X. CLINES April 10, 2006
So, what did the show's artfully skinned, well-posed human cadavers ever do for a living? And how much pure P. T. Barnum gawking underlies the sober tones of education as crowds of paying customers at "Bodies the Exhibition" move wide-eyed and close-up past the anonymous fellow posed like Rodin's "Thinker"? His skin has been peeled off to display the gorgeous complexity of muscles, vessels, organs and gray matter underlying humanity — all vividly preserved in a special plasticizing process.
Actual corpses are theatrically lighted in living color, some partitioned like puzzle pieces, others sectioned as giant slide displays. All are beyond animation and the knowledge of what has become of their own remains.
"Guy was alive, a whole person," said a wary teenager as classmates checked out the thinker. "It's not my place to stare."
But the lad did. The cadavers — 22 of them — pretty much stared back.
It's like that at the Manhattan exhibition and at a growing number of shows in cities around the globe as rival companies tap for profit ($24.50 per adult visitor) into startling new dissection techniques. Bodies become virtual performers in balletic still lifes revealing their intricate parts in living color. Filigrees of complete blood and neural systems hang like mobiles. The muscle sheaths of one posed sprinter are teased out from his back like the wings of Mercury fleeing some abattoir.
Critics fear that the scores of beguilingly tweaked bodies dispatched like vaudevillians may come from black marketeers. But purveyors insist each body comes with firm legal documentation of natural death, unclaimed and available for purchase, just as anatomy professors have obtained cadavers for years.
Public reaction is as varied and visceral as the body displays. A doctor exults at such firsthand education for the public; another thinks forensic evidence of foul play is discernible.
Living voyeurs trump the corpses as the attraction. A teacher happily lectures a class mesmerized at the palpable truth of a halved heart. At the lung display, a young smoker named Jen is gleefully summoned by her classmates to see the shiny black lungs of a dead smoker. Some pause at the message at one undone body: "It's never too late to start that workout."
But wait: that fellow extended athletically with a baseball in his flayed right hand (split-finger fastball, it seems) was allowed to keep his eyebrows for human emphasis. This invites pathos to blur the science: what's the witless man's history? Who was he really?

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