Volume 76, Number 37 | February 7 -13, 2007


Having an out-of-body experience at ‘Bodies’ show

By Andrei Codrescu

I saw the “Bodies” exhibition, a controversial display that’s been touring the country, making thousands of people depressed. The “bodies” on display are the real dead bodies of people who may have been executed Chinese prisoners. Using a new polymer preservation technique, the curators of the exhibit have isolated everything that can be seen in the human body. You can view your fabulous Medusa-like nerves, the miles of intestine, the marvelously precise muscles, the myriad bones, the blood vessels, the heart through which once a minute flows every drop of your blood, the brain, which is mostly water, and many other delicate and complex mechanisms enveloped by the 44-pound organ of the skin.

My son Tristan, who is studying to be a Chinese doctor, looked at everything slowly and studiously, but I sort of dashed through the crowd thinking that I was in a weird funeral parlor, looking at dead people who’d been taken apart for some obscene reason. After spending some time getting the creeps in front of some fetus jars, I fondled a brain carefully tended by a docent. I got to the end of the show and went back looking for Tristan, but he was still only in the bones room and had miles of guts and viscera to traverse before the end. I settled down with some guest books to read visitors’ comments. “I was hungry before I came,” one viewer wrote, “but now I’m not.” Yup. Somebody else thanked the staff for giving her water when she blacked out in the fetus room; I’d seen quite a few ashen people around, so it’s a good thing that the staff was awake. Other people said things like “Wow,” “Awesome,” “Isn’t God amazing?” But there were also a few complaints: “It’s not interactive,” one man wrote. “It doesn’t move.” I agreed whole-heartedly. If it doesn’t move it’s just dead meat.

I saw my first body when I was 7 years old. It was our next-door neighbor. He was lying in a coffin dressed in a black suit that made him strange because I’d never seen him in anything but a dirty shirt and suspenders. I was hugely relieved to see him because I’d imagined all kinds of things about ghosts. As soon as I gazed on his form I knew that the man wasn’t in there. He’d left that stuff behind, but the actual guy, who moved (albeit slowly) was gone. That impression was strengthened throughout my life: I’ve always found dead people and cemeteries soothing. Whatever life was in corpses had escaped somewhere, leaving behind a broken heap of marvelous cogs that didn’t mesh anymore.

When Tristan was done, we talked about how, for all its intricacies of detail, the show illuminated nothing about life, about the spirit that made all those things move. I remembered hearing a medical student wonder, after her first dissection, if there wasn’t something more that she’d somehow missed. Well, there is, but you just can’t see it.

After “Bodies” we went to a gallery opening where two burlesque dancers offered their bodies to be written on by the audience, and my friend Pablo demonstrated a wire that you could bend in any shape and then make return to whatever it was before you bent it because it “remembered” its original shape. The dancers were warm and wordy and even the wire gave off heat. We almost returned to the shape we’d been in before “Bodies,” a wiggly, shimmery shape. Much better deal.

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