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Razzle-dazzle cadavers

Bodies ... The Exhibition offers a unique view of anatomy

Bodies ... The Exhibition is a presentation of 21 whole-body specimens of Chinese cadavers and myriad body parts, from pituitary glands the size of a dollhouse vase to a sad, flaccid penis displayed under glass like a dead butterfly. Currently at the Atlanta Civic Center, Bodies is a multi-city presentation that's simultaneously on view in New York City and Tampa.

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Bodies is as much science fiction as it is science. It's grosser than British artist Damien Hirst's preserved cows, and ethically ickier than the fetal tissue debate. The exhibition of anonymous Chinese citizens whose tissue has been plasticized and posed into real-life anatomy models recalls government-phobic scare films like 1973's Soylent Green, about an overpopulated futuristic society whose foodstuff is reconstituted corpses.

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The cadaver flesh on display in Bodies was preserved with a technique in which tissue is replaced with silicone rubber. The silicone polymer gives flesh and organ meat a rubbery patina and a sea scallop color in its undyed state. This plasticization process is used for the public exhibition of preservative-laced corpses, in addition to medical training purposes.

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But the difference in plasticized flesh prepared for medical students and the specimens primed for Bodies is the latter's showbiz razzle-dazzle. Bodies is a cheesy spectacle that professes enlightenment and artfulness but delivers mostly cornball shocks in keeping with the current mainstream gore-hound culture of autopsy shows, serial killer culture, and downloadable videos of beheadings.

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For Bodies, special lighting is used to aestheticize and spotlight the corpses and 250 body parts segregated into Respiratory, Digestive and Circulatory/Nervous System rooms, among others. Like snack foods prepared for greater delectability, many bodies have been tinted with pink, blue or red dyes. When ambient lighting is used to full effect, some bodies look like tropical sea creatures. The Circulatory/Nervous System Room, for instance, features a section of leg whose isolated lacework of red veins glows like phosphorescent creatures in an aquarium.

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Bodies will provoke horror and curiosity. And it may arouse a feeling of profound existential dread at the thought of one day — despite all attempts to protect bodily integrity — ending up as the denouement in a Robin Cook medical thriller. Pity the corpse cursed to spend an eternity with his musculature pulled back from his body like fleshy wings or the cadaver with the convertible skull exhibiting his brain in kitschy mimicry of Rodin's "The Thinker."

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But despite their plasticized purgatory, the corpses feign a surprising joie de vivre as they engage in a myriad of leisure activities — basketball, tennis and football — normally enjoyed by the non-plasticized set.

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Despite all the Bodies shop talk about "dignity," the exhibition is more in keeping with timeworn sideshow strategies of the American carnival. Sideshows often cloaked simple human curiosity under a scaffolding of "education" and relied on moral opposition to create buzz and spike attendance for the carnival's canned fetuses and Siamese twins.

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Bodies evokes the same hokey exhibition strategies: the separate Enter-at-Your-Own-Risk room tackling embryonic development and fetal deformities, the docents in lab coats, the lighting shifts from spooky to spectacular.

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The Bodies exhibition even provides its own medical expert, Dr. Roy Glover. A retired anatomy professor from Michigan, the amiable Glover is a passionate advocate for the educational value of anatomy. Glover was on hand at opening events to answer questions and utter quotable mots like, "Many people read about the body, but they never go there."

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Glover pitches the nicotine-stained plasticized lungs and chubby corpses as cautionary tales about kicking the smoking habit and staying fit — presumably so you can end up lean, mean and eviscerated in a science museum.

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The exhibition text manages to be both grotesque and folksy, as with the warning, "Studies have shown that eating breakfast can improve the memory. Mom was right all along."

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The organizer of the show, Atlanta-based Premier Exhibitions Inc., receives its bodies from China's Dalian Medical University bio-plastination laboratories. Premier says the bodies are unclaimed and unidentified. But because of China's sketchy human rights track record, some have raised questions about how, exactly, these bodies were obtained.

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Bodies recalls not only the phenomenon of the sideshow, but the specific horror of famous "freaks" like the African-born Hottentot Venus, displayed for crowds as an example of the "primitive" black race. The Hottentot was exhibited for thrill-seeking 19th-century Europeans, at first alive, and then as a collection of dissected body parts and skeleton.

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The disreputable exhibition history of one race served up for the entertainment of another somewhat lessens the nobility of Bodies' claim that, "The specimens in this exhibit have been treated with the dignity and the respect they so richly deserve."

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That's showbiz!



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