I’m laptopping you from “Café Red” at the South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan. Having just stepped out of a remarkable exhibition, I’m thinking it’s worthy of a note. Imagine life-sized sculptures of naked men kicking soccer balls or conducting an orchestra. Now imagine that these sculptures are made from the carefully preserved remains of real people.
Bodies — the Exhibition is the creation of a group of doctors whose life work is anatomical research. Accessing cadavers from Chinese prisons, whole persons, as well as isolated systems — skeletal, muscular, nervous, digestive, respiratory, circulatory, reproductive, etc., are displayed in a series of theatrically darkened rooms. Everything is well annotated and explained. “Seeing,” says team leader Dr. Roy Glover, “promotes the most practical kind of body education.” Produced by a process known as Polymer Preservation, tissue water is first removed by immersion in acetone and followed in turn by its removal in a pressure chamber. Then the previously acetone-filled areas are impregnated with liquid silicone rubber and cured with a catalyst hardener. The result is a realistic rubberized specimen that will not suffer decay.
By combining artistry with keen observation, historical artists like da Vinci, Titian, Michelangelo, Raphael and Rembrandt made contributions to our understanding and appreciation of the human form. In this exhibition you are face to face with a new reality — you marvel at the inner beauty, logic, and complexity of it all. For the figurative painter there’s the miracle of musculature. Ethical concerns aside, these deconstructions fly apart to reveal how form follows function. And from a miniscule three-week-old fetus to the infirmity of age, our bodies are open to a steady march of imperfection and disease. No organ is spared. These nameless persons with exposed brains and open hearts have timeless eyes that stare at you and say: “I am a work of art, please respect how I work.”
“A prurient shock to the senses,” says one of the many critics. Like a contemporary art installation, which it doesn’t claim to be, there’s mind-bending magic. Art and understanding join hands and we are named “Homo curiosi.”
Ps: “Your body is the only thing you carry with you from the moment you are born until your very last breath. Knowledge of its structure and function is the most useful information a person can possess.” (Dr. Roy Glover, University of Michigan)
Esoterica: It’s the brain that these doctors find most difficult to preserve. Our brains are made mostly of lipids (fats) and water. During the Polymer Preservation it shrinks a great deal and requires special treatment. As well as in New York, “Bodies” is currently being shown in Atlanta, Tampa Bay, and London, England. Out here on this sunny sidewalk café, the waiter hovers. To the side of this laptop there’s a menu. I need to choose something that will go down nicely with the least amount of fuss.
Body Worlds — Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies — Official Site
Chinese human rights record
by Renee Emanuel, Harrisburg, PA, USA
We count on you to give us some thought-provoking ideas and inspiration and we thank you for it. But your thoughts on Bodies… the exhibition left out some of the most obvious questions. Of course these bodies came from China. I would have been so much more impressed had the good doctors used the bodies of their own parents, wives and children that had predeceased them. Anyone who wants to appreciate the intricacy of the human body can go to George Washington University where I suspect the amazing anatomical exhibits in their museum came from people who legitimately donated their remains. The exhibition that you describe smacks of the tradition of the freak show and one can only wonder how these remains were procured. I’m enclosing a paragraph from Slate that I found this afternoon that speaks to this sense of our right to purchase anything we want because we have the money.
(William Saletan on Human Nature, Science, Technology, Slate… April 21, 2006) British experts suggest China may be executing prisoners to sell their organs. China executed at least 3,400 people last year, more than any other country. Human Rights Watch previously said China had harvested as many as 3,000 organs from executed inmates each year. Last month, China admitted that organs had been taken from some prisoners without pre-execution consent, but it claimed that this practice was illegal and rare. Now the British Transplantation Society says 1) evidence suggests organs “in the thousands” are being taken without consent of prisoners or their families; 2) the transactions “involve payment of money and may implicate — patients and the authorities and judiciary responsible for the prisoners”; and 3) according to a BTS official, “It almost sounds as though the timing of an execution is at the convenience of the timing of a transplant.” (For China’s crackdown on the sale of sperm and eggs, click here.)
I’m interested in whether there is money being made as this “exhibition” travels. Without more information on this disquieting lack of respect for human remains, I can only go with my first reaction that I truly believed that Damien Hirst was on the cutting edge of art for shock sake and disrespect for life. Now I see that the great American dollar can break those barriers.
(RG note) Thanks Renee, and thanks to the many others who brought these concerns to our attention. Writers have also pointed out that there are several different exhibits going on around the world at the present time-the work of separate promoters and organizations. Other exhibitors include Body Worlds, Body Exploration and The Universe Within. The one I saw, Bodies — the Exhibition was put on by Premier Exhibitions Inc., of Atlanta, Georgia. These various shows may or may not use executed persons with or without their prior permission, and the persons used may or may not be from Chinese prisons. You bet, money is being made from these exhibitions. As there is a possibility that the exhibition I attended used unwilling and perhaps executed Chinese political prisoners, I’ve asked Andrew to remove all “Bodies” images from our website and replace them with ones from another exhibition Body Worlds, where well-documented, willed bodies are used.
Fascinating look at ourselves
by Veronica Stensby, Los Angeles, CA, USA
My husband Matt and I saw the show here in Los Angeles, on the last night around midnight waiting in a lengthy line that was filled with families and boisterous teenagers and young adults. Since we waited for over an hour to get in, it was quite the party atmosphere (being LA). I wondered at first about young children seeing these flayed bodies but from the look of wonderment in their eyes it became obvious the fascination took over any element of impropriety. The pregnant woman with fetus was cordoned off in an enclosed area, as were the various stages of a fetus’ development. The views of organs in various stages of disease were most telling, health-wise, and the view of the capillaries was especially vivid and artistic in its tree-and-branch-like formations. A truly fascinating look at ourselves in our corporeal forms.
Why dead bodies?
by Jean Burman, Cairns, Australia
Recently I sat alongside my mother as she fought courageously for her life. Upon her final breath, her eyes opened slightly to reveal to me that she had already gone. Her passing was complete and final… and of course… devastating for me. Following this experience… never more will I believe that the body is anything without the soul. When the spirit leaves the body I truly believe there is nothing left. So… what is there to really see in an exhibition of dead bodies? The souls who lived in them have long gone and the “spark” that gave them life is no longer visible (or bio-available) to us. Throughout millennia artists have strived to capture the spirit (the soul) of their subject… so what possible value could an exhibition of empty organic vessels contain except to quench some weird kind of voyeuristic and/or ghoulish impulse? I’m sorry… but the “heartfelt” artist in me screams “this is sick!” Exhibitions such as these are a violation of human spiritual dignity.
Positive health education for all
by Sylvia Hicks, Bar Harbor, ME, USA
I recently visited BODIES… the exhibition at the Tampa Bay Museum of Science and Industry. The exhibit halls were jammed with enthralled people of all ages. My group included a registered nurse so we got a lot of in-depth commentary along the way. One thing we all noticed was the total immersion and awe of the school-age attendees — mostly teens but some younger. They treated the nude bodies with utmost respect. There was no twittering or smirking. They were absolutely blown away by the body, recognizing that it was as their own. There was a quiet attitude of reverence throughout the exhibit areas. Some saying, oh, my father had that illness or gee, see what smoking does to your body. (Most of the bodies had been smokers). And the unborn fetus brought home so much for the teens. A great lesson with not a word spoken. All were so impressed. The debate has been “Is it art or is it science?” Well, my vote is that it is both.
Prison business in China
by Phil, Las Vegas, NV, USA
Being a ‘prisoner’ in China is hardly tantamount to being in any way a ‘criminal.’ Too, it was tacitly admitted that these people were killed to-order to suit the kind if display their particular corpse would be used for, by the promoter/payer/dealmaker. Over there, they also kill ‘prisoners’ to sell body parts to the West. Prisons in China are a ‘business.’
Waiting list to donate bodies
by Jonathan Bennett, Victoria, BC, Canada
An Austrian television producer, Gerhard Perner has done work in a similar vein (no pun intended!). The website is The Universe Within and you can donate your body to him (there is a huge waiting list). He has done shows in Europe and North America, his work is surreal. He has a piece called Running man, where he has the man in a running pose and has placed his musculature in a wave behind so his all the different muscles are seen as trailing him. Another piece has a horse done in the same way. Very strange and bizarre.
Respect for basic human rights
by Marie-Catherine, UK
May I point out that the Chinese bodies you mention come from political prisons — people jailed and killed for having looked for the word “democracy” on the Internet using a homemade search system to counteract the censorship. While I see no problem with using the bodies of people who have wished for their body to be used by science, I find it a violation of everything human to use the body of people who never wanted for their bodies to be used, particularly political prisoners. I suppose you also know how the Chinese select prisoners to be executed according to what organ they need for a transplant (a very nice money-making business it seems). There are things more important than art — yes, I realize what I’m saying! Respect of the most basic human rights is one of those things.
by Marianne Bee, UK
I visited a similar exhibition in London a couple of years ago. The Austrian Doctor, Gunther Von Hagens, had an exhibition on Brick Lane in London. I went with my son and thought it was the most amazing and inspirational sight. My mother has Alzheimer’s disease and the slices of brain with that particular illness that were on display made it very much easier for me to understand what was happening to her. I have also watched the television programs he has done about autopsies where he demonstrated the process. I think that the way the body is constructed is the most wonderful thing and that these exhibitions, whilst controversial, are very liberating.
by Nancy Cook, Trappe, MD, USA
Dead-body shows are hot, and big money-makers. I saw the one called Body Worlds at the Ontario Science Centre and regret supporting this activity via my admission fee. In my opinion it was sensationalism, confused about whether to pose as art or science, succeeding in neither. To learn more about the human body, I suggest anatomy books, life-drawing, and yoga. Here’s a quote from the Chicago Tribune:
“Despite the controversies — or perhaps because of them — Body Worlds is big business. The exhibitions have been visited by 17 million people and grossed $200 million worldwide since 1995, and as many as nine rival shows have popped up. Gunther Von Hagens has gone to court in an attempt to stop two of them, arguing that his plastinated bodies are protected by copyright.”
Exhibition exploits enslaved, desperate persons
by Carole Lyles Shaw, Laurel, MD, USA
I find the idea of this exhibition exceedingly repellant — especially the fact that these remains are from Chinese prisons. What about the rights of the human being whose remains these were? I would feel far more comfortable if these remains were freely donated by free human beings, not enslaved or desperate ones. For me, this exhibit is really about exploitation, enslavement and dominant society arrogance. I am surprised and disappointed that your write-up did not address these issues, instead of seeming so fascinated by the technology. It is this type of blindness that has characterized the role played by technologists and scientists in the last few centuries of techno-domination of the powerless and despoilment of the earth. These issues are as relevant to art as they are to politics and human rights.
by Mary Nelson, Marshfield, WI, USA
Now is the time to think about the ethics of what is being done to these prisoners. The stances that these dead prisoners are in fly in the face of those that probably did not give up these bodies painlessly or willingly. Seeing this makes me want to weep for humankind and I wonder why we tolerate this in any country. I do not believe setting the bar low for China makes us any less despicable and unfeeling. To think our doctors are so Frankenstein as this and would choose to go to another country to sacrifice humans makes me believe many underhanded things I dared only think about. This is truly an unspeakable act. Bad things happen when good people do nothing, but to go so far as to sweep aside ethics to treat human remains in this way is unthinkable.
by Helen Scott, New Bern, NC, USA
I was fortunate enough to catch Dr. Roy Glover’s visit to NPR one afternoon a couple of weeks ago. Am fascinated and so glad that there has, at last, been a way devised to study the human body in such a precise and beautiful way. As a medical illustrator, a registered radiologic technologist and teacher of human anatomy in both medicine and the art of drawing, Dr. Glover’s work is such a leap forward in our studies. He and his team have done a beautiful job.
Artist seduced by authoritarian scientist
by Karen Randall, Glendale, CA, USA
It never ceases to amaze me the enormous credibility that the artist, who deals in universals, aesthetics, and the most essential magic that he himself imbues into the material, is ever seduced by the scientific authoritarian. To call a study of such sort a “work of art” certainly puts us all in the grave. A clinical medical study neatly and cleverly done, that requires “ethics aside” and elicits a “prurient shock to the senses,” can hardly be called art. You have, I trust, looked up the definition of “prurient” meaning “marked by or arousing an unwholesome sexual interest or desire.” (Who was the necrophiliac that wrote that line?)
Art is the highest attainment in any culture, whereas the medical doctor will always be limited in his abilities and influence primarily because he cannot begin to fathom what the artist knows instinctively and works in day by day. To compare the two, or put them into the same category is a farce. If mud to mud is your only explanation of life, if man is a brain controlled by chemicals, if we are nothing but meat, then perhaps you are correct to align with the medicos in glorifying the lifeless remains of life. If life is nobler, capable of magnificent creation, care and honor, it is not because of the meat parts of the vessel that life occupies, it is because life itself is the animator of the material and is all things that are ever considered good and truly valuable by mortal men.
It is all too easy to forget who you are in a world that is bombarded by the “philosophies” of the medical pharmaceutical industrial complex that seeks to preserve man as a chunk of meat, thus obscuring who he really is. The artist has a power of influence far beyond the apparent power that sways him, and a responsibility to remain cognizant of his role, especially as the world spirals deeper into materialism. Without the artist performing at his highest level the world is all but lost.
Know thyself, and to thyself be true. And, be true to your fellow artists as well.
oil painting on panel
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
That includes Jo Ann Martielli of Florida, USA who wrote, “A fine line exists between Art and Depravity. It is the job of the artist to draw the line between the two.”
And also Sue Young of Gainsborough, UK who wrote, “I find the concept repulsive. I don’t consider it to be art any more than a dead cow in formaldehyde or a pile of bricks.”
And also Jim LeSire who wrote, “I always wanted to be preserved in plastic and stood up in the graveyard.”
And also William Leo Cranny of Kalamunda, Western Australia who wrote, “Doctor: ‘Of what are you complaining?’ Me: ‘Nothing really, it’s just my body.'”
And also Fritz Huber of Wilmington, NC, USA who wrote, “The ‘Bodies’ show in London was at the same time as a showing of Damien Hirst. It made Hirst’s work so much more meaningful. He touches the edge of what they are throwing right at you. What amazes me about us is the way we are able to become objective on call.”
And also Carole Buschmann of Denver, Colorado, USA who wrote, “When I saw the exhibit I wanted to accomplish personal health goals so that I would have a pretty smoothly working interior.”
And also Jean-Claude Chaillou of France who wrote, “What touches my sensitivity is your human generosity and your love of nature and the simple things. A friend subscribed me to your letters which I translate with Google, which enables me to include and understand.”