By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
Although controversy has stuck to "Bodies ... The Exhibition" like a blood tick on a hound dog's tail, more than 10,000 spectators had flocked to see the corpse show at a local mall within days of its debut.
Scheduled to run through March of next year at the Shops at Sunset Place, in the space previously occupied by the defunct Virgin Megastore, the exhibit features 260 body parts and the 20 flayed and plastic-cured cadavers of Chinese nationals who were unclaimed in death.
The hullabaloo dogging the cadaver display stems from doubts regarding whether the bodies were legally obtained.
Premier Exhibitions Inc., organizers of the human anatomy show, are leasing the specimens for a reported $25 million over ten years from the Dalian Medical University in China for "educational purposes," because it is illegal to traffic in human remains.
Despite the exhibitors vowing they have been assured by the Chinese that the bodies are those of people who died of natural causes, human rights watchdog groups such as the Laogai Research Foundation charge that the category of unclaimed bodies in the People's Republic includes dissidents who have been executed.
Earlier this year, Florida's medical board and attorney general tried to put the kibosh on the exhibit before it opened at Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry, questioning the ethics and legality of displaying bodies of people who never consented to having their remains placed on public display.
Before South Miami was chosen, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle dropped the ax on plans to show it at the War Memorial Auditorium this past July, comparing it to Nazi medical experiments.
Gunther von Hagens, who pioneered the process used to preserve the bodies, and whose "Body Worlds" exhibit was the first to place dissected, silicone-treated cadavers on public display, reportedly used the remains of Chinese execution victims in his shows, according to the German news magazine Der Spiegel. He denied putting the bodies of political prisoners on display but did return a batch of cadavers to Dalian after two were found with bullet holes in the backs of their heads, reported the Daily Telegraph.
When "Bodies ... The Exhibition" opened in London this past spring, members of the Falun Gong protested the exhibit, claiming they feared that members of their sect might be on display.
The Falun Gong, which is persecuted in China, claims thousands of its members have been murdered and their organs sold to the West, stated another article in the Daily Telegraph. The protesters also alleged that Dalian's corpse-processing factory is located near three labor camps, where they believe members of the sect were taken; they also cited, during their vigil outside the exhibit, China's history of human rights violations and the university's government affiliation.
Premier Exhibitions' vice president, Tom Zaller, responded to protesters by warning that the company would sue if they persisted with their claims. Premier has distanced itself from Gunther von Hagens and several other competing human anatomy exhibits around the world. In a letter to the New York Timesand company shareholders in August, Arnie Geller, Premier's CEO, wrote that corporate officers had "traveled to China a number of times to ensure that the sourcing process met with the highest standards both legally and morally." Added Geller: "We are absolutely committed to ensuring that the content of 'Bodies ... The Exhibition' is educational, ethical, and legally correct."
During New Times's recent visit to the show, no picketers were to be found at the mall, where a poster advertised "real human bodies" on the exhibit entrance.
The 33,000-square-foot interior was dramatically lit, and walls were covered with factoids such as "women blink twice as much as men," "it takes 17 muscles to smile and 43 to frown," and "blonds have more hair than people with dark hair."
The exhibit is systematically structured in sections ranging from the skeletal, muscular, nervous, digestive, respiratory, circulatory, and reproductive systems, with the jarring specimens posed to illustrate the functions of the human body.
A Miami-Dade fireman posted as a human smoke detector because the space's sprinkler system was kaput, the escalators weren't working, and the place didn't have enough fire exits cracked that the skinned cadavers looked like ropa vieja, a traditional Cuban dish of marinated and shredded beef.
Even though it was a weekday morning, hundreds of spectators already thronged the place, gawking at skinless stiffs dribbling a basketball or running full stride with muscles peeled like an orange rind off the bones.
Shane Hansell who had come from Dania with his family out of morbid fascination, and who has plans to enroll at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Miramar said the bodies provoked thoughts of cannibalism. "The meat looks stringy, almost like beef jerky," the eighteen-year-old chirped. "In some countries, people still eat each other, you know. They could be serving the stuff somewhere right now."
In the skeletal room, a body was posed as if hitching a ride. In a next-door gallery devoted to the muscular system, a cadaver bent back toward the floor on one leg, kicking a soccer ball over its head like Pelé. Across from it the muscular structure of a body held hands with its own skeleton as if frozen in a macabre version of the Virginia reel.
All the cadavers and organs on exhibit are odorless and have been cured through a process called polymer preservation, which replaces body fluids with liquid plastic that, once hardened, leaves tissues intact. It allows spectators to examine the specimens from inches away.
Even though most of the corpses have been totally flayed of their skins, facial features such as the nose, eyelids, eyebrows, and lips often remain, leaving human expressions unaltered.
The Chinese men's sexual organs have been skinned, but the women's genital regions curiously have been preserved in sanitary-napkin-size flaps and their pubic hair closely cropped. These details freaked out many onlookers.
Some of the bodies have been weirdly carved up. A body displayed in the section showing how the nervous system operates is posed like an orchestra conductor raising a baton over his head. The man's skull has been sliced to resemble a hockey mask and his chest cut open to appear like a vest. The muscles of his abdomen have been diced in a checkered pattern. Close by, a corpse sits at a small wooden table and leans over a medical textbook as if studying the surface anatomy of the head and neck. His skull has been whittled into a breadbasket shape around the intact brain. A sign nearby informs that the spinal cord transmits millions of nerve impulses per second at speeds exceeding 270 miles per hour.
In a darkened room highlighting the circulatory system, a process known as corrosion casting was used to reveal the body's intricate matrix of blood vessels. Veins and arteries were injected with a colored polymer that hardens, and the surrounding tissue removed by a corrosive chemical.
A specimen depicting the arteries of the trunk maintained the shape of a torso, with several pencil-thick veins and thickets of cotton-candy-thin capillaries all colored a fire-engine red. A display showing the blood supply to the face and skull resembles a widow's veil, with scarlet earthworm-shape tendrils covering a bleached skull's surface.
The creep factor was cranked up in a room dedicated to embryonic and fetal development. Fetuses are displayed in glowing cylinders and treated with alizarin, a red dye that binds to their calcium to demonstrate bone growth. The bodies of well-developed fetuses, one with a cleft lip, another with spina bifida, and yet another with a visceral hernia, left a sour taste.
Throughout the exhibit, vitrines display healthy and damaged organs side-by-side to educate visitors and encourage them to make healthier lifestyle choices. A smoker's tarred lungs have been placed next to a healthy pair, and severe cases of cancer in some body parts show up next to normal specimens.
Next to a display of a smoker's carbonized lungs, exhibitors placed a plastic container for spectators to discard their cigarette packs. Over it a sign warned smokers that a pack of cigarettes shaves two hours off one's life. "We'd like you to be around longer.... Stop smoking now!" it read. Dozens of packs lined the see-through container's bottom.
Most of the comment books on a table near the exit were full of positive remarks from viewers who had visited that day. "Amazing," one noted. "Everyone should see the exhibit and perhaps respect their bodies and take better care of them as a result."
"Bodies" is certainly well presented and allows people a better understanding of how their own anatomy works. But given the sketchy information surrounding the corpses' origins and the undeniably commercial nature of the show, it's easy to see why it gives pause to the ethically minded.
When New Times was exiting the show, Daniel Kellett, general manager of the Miami exhibit, never broached the topic of where the bodies came from, but focused instead on the box office.
"We will be opening a gift shop offering customers key chains, T-shirts, and coffee mugs relating to the exhibit soon," he said. "During the Super Bowl, we are going to wrap buses and transit trains with advertising to promote the show. We hope to place a sign on the blimp as well."