Consuming Cadavers

In the spring/summer of 1991 United Colors of Benetton launched an advertising campaign that portrayed three ethnically diverse children: Asian, Caucasian, and African American. All three sport shirtless, bare shoulders and are shown to be gleefully sticking out their tongues.  The vision for the ad was to promote the idea that although on the outside the children were visibly different, their tongues were all the same; it was a notion of being externally distinctive yet internally identical.

Similarly, in a much more perverse light, Bodies The Exhibition was heavily advertised all over New York City in the spring of 2006 to garner interest for the museum with its infamous installment of dead bodies and a myriad of body parts. Five years later, you still find limbs strewn about Manhattan via billboards; sinewy men sit exposed on posters, stripped of natural decency; and bulging, bare eyes attached to glaring white brains provoke reluctant attention from pedestrians who cannot help but look at the gore of the human anatomy magnified pictorially on street affiches.

Perhaps the Benetton vision is what Bodies The Exhibition has adopted; maybe the shockingly revealed muscles of the plasticized cadavers are not simply an educational window at the human internal. Maybe the exposition of skinless bodies is a call for unitary efforts on behalf of mankind–come, see the exhibition and how we all are the same on the inside…literally.

     The exhibition beckons for the world to buy this experience for the ticket price of $24.50 to see how bodies are subjected to the world of capitalism, like the Benetton children.

By far, the denudation of the 22 cadavers, all hailing from china and now sitting in the museum at South Street Seaport, surpasses the brilliantly detailed paintings of dissected human bodies in Eduard Pernkopf’s Anatomy. Although just as controversial, Bodies The Exhibition has reached a whole new level in the exploitation of the dead as well as in the enrichment of knowledge. Seeing the beautiful, intricated images of human innards in Pernkopf’s anatomical atlas hardly holds a candle to seeing a raw body divested of its natural clothing before one’s eyes. Incontestably, with all moral and ethical controversy aside, the exhibition is nonetheless educative.

Dr. Roy Glover, the medical advisor for the exhibition does indeed tout it as a fascinating educational adventure into one’s own anatomy; he has been quoted saying “The body doesn’t lie.”

     If the body never lies, how does one go about making it relative to all the different people in the world with different bodies? By methodically ripping off the skin to all the cadavers and leaving them devoid of faces? The hidden danger of the exhibition is that while it attempts to create educational opportunity as well as universality by tearing off the differentiating external of an epidermis, it reveals not just plasticized muscles and bones, but a just barely noticeable film of American culture and tendencies.

Nathan Deuel’s account in “I Smell Dead People” walks us through his visitation to the fat exhibit where a dead, corpulent woman has been sawed in half and then in sections. “They sawed off her face too,” Deuel writes, “That way, as we consider her fatness, there’s no face to confront, just her round thighs and chubby ankles“. Indubitably, depersonalization and de-facing is necessary in such an exhibition. After all, how else does one convey the core human similarity that Bodies sets out to illustrate?

And yet, there is an effort to westernize the corposes, to give them a mediated “western” image of athleticism and all-American baby blue eyes. The sports props and eyeballs make a stab at conforming the bodies to an identifiable “us” to make it easier on the conscience knowing that visibly the bodies portray “Americanism” and not a dead Chinese man.

However, does this representation of Americanism extend beyond the superficial physical traits and poses of the bodies?

It seems that there is no other way to do such a business unless the specimens are neutralized, relegated to as much anonymity as possible. Creators of Bodies claim that the exhibition is perfectly acceptable because it should be perceived of as an eductional tool, not a breach of morals. Yet retrospectively, the line is evidently not drawn at educational purpose.

With mass societies, education is not all that is solely provided; twists for attention lend themselves into the equation. Surely there must be a reason why the public is so drawn to such a macabre exhibition of so-called specimens–and it is hardly the educational appeal. Since when did the culling of knowlege become commercialized and tagged with a ticket price?

     Education and business should be two entirely separate spheres, and yet Bodies exemplifies an all too familiar pecuniary merging of life and money. The exhibition shoots for the image of an academic mecca of anatomy, an educational institution that clearly profits off of the dead bodies it displays. Why this aspect of Bodies is so emphasized in numerous journalistic invectives is amusing, for such fetish with exchange value is not new, nor forged solely by the appearance of Bodies. Traces of such emptor mannerisms of exhibitions can certainly be found in America’s historical bloodstream.

Although the purpose of expositions in the 19th century was to educate the masses, Rosalynd Williams’ “Dream Worlds of Consumption” claims that the dominant tone of expositions altered over the decades. She writes, “The emphasis gradually changed from instructing the visitor in the wonders of modern science and technology to entertaining him”.   The wonders of modern science thus eventually resulted in exhibitions harvesting less of ane ducational purpose and serving more as an amusement resource.

Currently, auto shows are known more for their showcasing of the latest brilliant aestheticism in the form of cars, rather than actually brandishing how motorized vehicles function. The Museum of Sex, also located in NYC, is mainly attractive to visitors due to the chance to see tabooed, freely displayed old-school pornography and sex machines. Truly wanting to learn about the history and development of all sex and pornography seems secondary to the lure of simply being able to gawk at black and white smutty films.

    The shift from the focus of learning to entertaining has certainly not lost emphasis in modern society, and certainly not with Bodies.

As much as the creators and proponents of the exhibition can vie for Bodies  to appear as an educational experience, its popularity nonetheless is an alarm at what western values and habits have become. The mainstream gore-hound culture that engenders sick movies like Saw and Texas Chainsaw Massacre seems to not only result in box-office explosions, but ultimately results in stretching to the extreme of profiting from death, not to mention subjecting the dead to Barnum and Bailey styled presentations.

Is Bodies The Exhibition truly a profession of enlightenment or merely a means for science to keep up and slip its way into today’s American culture?

When the United States hit the Industrial Revolution and dove headlong into a spiraling capitalist bad-habit of mass consumerism, the world seemed to have evolved along with it to keep up with the demands of consumption; consumption in the sense of material goods AND experience. It is this notion of treating human life as a commodity that is significant.

As the existence of Bodies tells us that textbooks are not enough, that there is a “never satisfied desire of the western gaze to consume the body”, it also tells us that we are truly a consumer and entertainment mongering world. Have these Chinese plasticized bodies become yet another Jim Crow to the western world, sacrificial lambs easily touted for western amusement?

The commodification of human beings has become practically automatic; the public seems to be incognizant of the extent to which mass consumerism has permeated into all spheres of life.

Reality shows have become yet another way for individuals to sell themselves to the masses in a claim for fame, and conversely, American society is just as eager to tap into the other end as receivers–to consume the entertainment that one being is able to serve to another. Bodies The Exhibition  is no different. Indeed, there is no business like show business, even with proclaimed serious fixtures like Bodies.

To find what is truly base about Bodies is to dig into how American culture is dysfunctional and requires an assessment of the modern world’s fascination with anything entertaining. Bodies is too eerily close to being simply another farcical pageantry of the corny spectacles so glorified by American culture.

“The body never lies,” trumpets the exhibition. Veritably, the exhibit is educational and an irrefutable informational outlet; yet, rip off that external skin. The sick, American fetish for entertainment that possesses people to not only subject cadavers into a manifestation reminiscent of American carnival sideshows, but to love it and desire to consume the experience, is what lies beneath the guise of education. Bodies said it itself; the internal doesn’t lie.

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