(Please note: I recreated all the graphics used in this post except for “Bodies: the Exhibition�?. They may not read exactly word for word with what was actually there.)
On Friday night, Toby Joe and I went to see Bodies: The Exhibition. I was told we’d find the exhibit on the second floor of a building along the touristy strip that makes up lower Manhattan’s South Street Seaport. As we walked toward the river, a chorus sang Christmas carols while tourists took temporary photographs with every kind of digital camera made. They seemed desperate to capture the moment. Flashes were flickering like fireflies breaking up the wind and the cold and the dark sky. The chorus sang “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear.” After they finished, a plump man suggested the listeners purchase a CD. Eye contact fell to the street. The flashes disappeared like shooting stars hitting Earth’s atmosphere. He knew they were just there to listen.
The Gap’s doors stood open. Two women shopped together, asking questions they’d asked other people before, people who probably gave the same responses. In a restaurant on the opposite corner people dined behind large glass windows. The restaurant pretended to be one-of-a-kind. And even if it was, I couldn’t help but compare it to every major American food chain. People were sipping frozen margaritas. Nachos were being consumed at a fantastic rate.
“I think the place is on the left,�? I said. “I seem to remember it being number 11. I know it’s on the second floor.”
“Well, that’s number 17. So it must be on this side.”
We continued on. There was a dark building on the left-hand side. Cops were guarding the doorways. Out of the corner of my eye, I discovered a story-high picture of what appeared to be a corpse. This must be the place.
We exchanged words with the security guards and I walked up to the “Will Call” window to claim our tickets. After that, we continued on up the escalators to the second floor.
I saw the words COAT CHECK painted on the wall. Other words surrounded it but they were smaller.
The designer in me, and more specifically my love for language and typography, found that part to be beautiful.
We left our coats with the man behind the counter. There were little signs printed out and taped to the countertop.
The neurotic “Do I tip this person?” side of me found that part to be beautiful. If only they could be this clear at full-service gas stations, valet parking lots, during Fresh Direct deliveries or when picking up food to go.
The place was dark. Words making up sentences danced along the wall in 500+ point typography. Questions such as “Why do women have wider hips than men?” and “How many breaths do you take a minute?” lined the walls. Spotlights kept them illuminated. Like random thoughts that come to mind every day, the questions came and went as we walked by them.
We entered the exhibit. Standing directly before me was a body. The body had no skin. One could see his muscles, his eyes, and his bones. He stood there, staring directly at me, his eyes wide and full and fake. Eyelashes surrounded each glass eye. The eyelashes were real. Toby and I stood there looking directly at him. My imagination saw his eyes move and then I forgot about my imagination and I really saw his eyes move. I looked away, feeling shameful.
“Look at him, Toby. His eyes moved.”
His eyes never moved. But I guess part of me wanted them to. Suddenly, I wanted to cry. The compassionate part of me found that part to be beautiful.
We peered into some of the glass boxes. The cross-sections of bones and cartilage were displayed before us. The exhibit began with structure. And my life began to seem a little less meaningful.
Somewhere below us, a party was taking place. We could hear singing, word-for-word, as they belted out wedding party songs.
“Is there a karaoke machine somewhere?” I asked Toby. “It sounds like someone might be singing karaoke.”
A woman standing to our right nodded as she looked at someone’s sacrum. “It’s a little inappropriate.” We all agreed in silence.
One display featured a man’s bones being held up by his very own muscles. The two specimens held one another up using pieces of the same fingertips. Only there were no fingertips. Up until that moment I hadn’t once thought that I might one day hold up my muscles with my very own bones or my bones with my very own muscles while they looked at one another.
“Do you think anyone would ever guess that they’d be in this position one day?” I asked Toby. “How totally bizarre. That’s the same person.”
“It’s raining men, Michele”
It took me a minute to figure out what he was talking about. Then, I heard it bubbling up from below. Someone was singing “It’s Raining Men, Hallelujah” from the restaurant beneath us.
I walked around to the back of the man throwing the football. The skin had been removed from his rear end exposing his muscles, ligaments, and bones. I read the text that accompanied the display. I looked back at the exhibit.
“It’s raining men. Hallelujah. It’s raining men.” I wished that it would go away.
I felt bad for staring at this man’s body especially given the soundtrack, a soundtrack I had no control over. So, I wrote him a letter in my head.
“I kind of want to know their names.” I told Toby. “Don’t you wish you knew where they were from? How long they lived? What they died from? What they did when they had skin?”
“The ethical thing is to keep the personality separate from the body. In America, when you donate your body to science, you’re reassured your body will remain separate from your personality.”
“Yeah. But still, don’t you wonder?”
We continued on. We read about the foot’s bones, the hand’s bones, and the muscles that hold them all together. We read about the hipbone and how much weight it endures daily. I read about the Superficial Palmer Surface. I dug into my hand with my thumb and forefinger. I read about the Deep Palmer Sinus. I dug deeper into my hand with my thumb and forefinger, apologizing to the veins and muscles as I pressed.
“Do you smell food? I smell food. It’s a little disconcerting. I smell fried food.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Toby joked. “I don’t smell food. It must be this fella.” Toby pointed at the body that was posed as a maestro. I punched his arm.
“You’re crazy if you don’t smell food. Now, I smell coffee. It’s not these guys. That’s gross.”
We left the room.
The third room featured human hearts, arteries, and capillaries. They were dyed to show the different systems. They were held in a fluid and illuminated with UV light from above. The dyes were ultraviolet, making them scream against an otherwise dark room. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.
I pointed at an open valve at the top of one of the hearts. “So, is this what didn’t close for Katrina? And then her heart flooded… is that how she died?”
As I walked though the exhibit, I felt more and more miniscule. I kept imagining that one day, after donating my own body to science, my heart or liver, kidney or leg might be tucked in one of those clear glass boxes and another couple might be resting their arms along its top, peering in at what’s left of me. For the bodies before me, life was a mere blink. They proved this so. They had no idea that life would be so short. They had no idea I was staring at them. I became saddened by the fact that one day a doctor or a medical student might be looking into my open skull, preparing to remove a part of my brain in order to understand and therefore enable someone else
– who still breaths – to live a longer life. Are we more powerful in death than we are in life? This thought terrified me a little bit.
“I feel a little sick.” I whispered to Toby. “It’s not that I feel nauseous. I feel like I’m not breathing properly. I feel like an airbag. I feel empty.”
“Do you want to go?”
“No way. I just want you to know how I’m feeling.”
One room featured healthy organs compared with unhealthy ones. An abused liver
– its mentor. A black lung – what it envies. A cancer-ridden colon—its healthy neighbor. The reproductive organs were truly fascinating especially the specimen featuring teeth and hair with grew in a woman’s ovary called ovarian teratomas. I couldn’t take my eyes off of this. But it’s easier to stare at the abnormal when it’s not a part of an otherwise complete human body. I stared and stared.
Toby lifted his eyebrow and pointed toward the sign. I knew what he was asking.
“I’m totally fine with this.”
We walked in and looked at the different stages of a fetus. Each one was put in a jar and submerged in liquid. The fetuses were illuminated from the top, in the same manner the veins were shown. They were lit with ultraviolet light.
At 8 weeks, I could see a human. Prior that time, it was hard to see much of anything at all. And the one-week-old fetus looked like a piece of human snot. There were a few moments during the time we spent in that room where I uttered sounds like “Awwww”. I just couldn’t help myself. The motherly side of me found that part to be beautiful.
The final room, which was the best lit and among the largest, featured an exhibit on obesity. The specimen was female. She had been cut in four sections. Its point was to show the viewer where and how an overweight woman stores fat. Another exhibit showed an entire human body cut in half-inch cross-sections. Its point was to show what an MRI machine sees. Another displayed the entire digestive system. This was perhaps the most ugly part of the body but whose job makes sense of that.
The final room also displayed the exhibit I felt was the most sensationalistic of the show. For me, it was perhaps the most shocking part. It displayed a full human figure. His arms were held above his head in what some might call a “Jesus Christ Pose.” It’s as if he were hanging from the ceiling by imaginary rope. Skin was left on in rings. The point was to show how it fell along certain muscles and what it looked like and why.
“That looks a little Silence of the Lambs.”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t really bother me.”
The self-conscious side of me found that part upsetting.
At the very end of the exhibition, we were allowed to hold different parts of the human body. The specimens were preserved. All the water molecules were replaced with silicon based molecules so we could hand them as freely as we wanted. Among them was a tibia, a healthy lung slice, a lung slice with emphysema, and artery with fat deposits, and a healthy liver. I watched a young couple shyly try and touch them. The man touched the artery.
“Did you just wipe your finger on me?” His girlfriend laughed.
The men behind the counter reassured them that the specimens were completely preserved. It was my turn to try it.
The liver seemed to weigh a ton. And I found myself thinking, “If I didn’t have a liver, I’d be at least three pounds lighter than I am right now.”
The vain side of me found that part to be comical.
I signed up as a volunteer. The human body fascinates me. I am fascinated by death. In another life, or perhaps a version of the one I have now that comes a little later, I’d like to be a coroner. Exhibits such as these push that dream closer and closer to becoming my reality.
At 3 AM on Saturday morning, I was awoken for no apparent reason other than a feeling of emptiness. I felt I needed to admit something to someone. Perhaps the Catholic in me felt guilty for what I had done. This was the closest I have ever come to a relapse. Seeing those who are dead and made immortal through art can leave a stain on one’s conscience in much the same way a poor diet might on an internal organ.
Was it OK that I spent an evening with the dead? Was it OK that I learned from them? Should I visit them again? Yes. I really want to. I will remain fascinatingly haunted by the fact that teeth and hair can sometimes grow inside ovaries. I keep picturing fetuses submerged in liquid kept in jars, testicular cancer, bumpy rectums, the colorful, beautiful, breathtaking veins which make up each of our personal cities, as well as the skinny bones that hold it all together.
The mortal side of me found the exhibition to be beautiful. But it hasn’t been as easy to sleep.