Tuesday, May 22, 2007

ostensio corporum hominum

1545 woodcut by Charles Estienne.

Talmida has written a good post on the "Our Body: the Universe Within" exhibit in Detroit, inspiring me to post something I've been thinking about for some time. There is a similar exhibit in New York, in which supposedly "unclaimed or unidentified corpses from China" are displayed dramatically, posed in regular human activity, skinned, and often cut to reveal different anatomical features. This "educational" activity can be experienced at the South Street Seaport for the modest price of $27, and yours truly is forced to see the ads, complete with corpses, on buses and in the subway.

I have been surprised by the lack of controversy about the exhibit. The comments section of the article I linked to above
shows for the most part a concern about the origin of the bodies, but not about the idea of publicly displaying the physical remains of fellow human beings for the sake of entertainment. I have difficulty with the idea that this is purely educational. Would people pay $27 to see, for example, identical plastic reproductions of this exhibit, or an exhibit featuring only animals? I think morbid curiosity might have more to do with the success of the show that interest in anatomy.

There is something very revealing about our society in the fact that we can pay money to see human remains imported from China, just another consumer product that we feel we have a right to enjoy because we can afford it. I can imagine people who have enjoyed the exhibit reading this and thinking that I am a moralizing killjoy, or perhaps an anti-modern obscurantist. No -- there are times, as Talmida suggested, when the donation of a body is a gift of mercy, either to provide the ill with new organs, or to teach medical students who truly need to see the real thing to learn how to save lives. This exhibit, however, is deeply dehumanizing. In the end, the bodies are slashed and flayed like cuts of meat, and, most tellingly, the faces are removed. There is no sign that these were living, breathing individuals with families and dreams and personalities -- which should be enough to make you pause, even if you're not religious. If you are, think about what the exhibit promoters have done to the imago Dei. The depersonalized sons and daughters of God in this show are frightening metaphors for what our technological and commercial society does to all of us -- it divides us into soulless products and consumers.

"But Liam," someone may protest, "you blog about relics all the time. Isn't it hypocritical of you to complain that something is morbid?" Well, I certainly understand that a lot of people will not see eye-to-eye with me about relics, but even though we are talking about the public exposition of body parts, they have little to do with this show. The relic affirms two things: it exalts the individual whose relic it is, and it points to the glory and eventual permanence of the redeemed human body. When we see a relic, if we believe the theology behind it, we are reminded of the life, character, and deeds of the saint in question; and we gaze upon something that will one day be in paradise. The faceless corpses in the exhibit suggest that human beings are so much meat to be bought by the highest bidder, then to be flayed, cut and posed for our entertainment and eventually, one may suppose, be discarded when no longer profitable.

We need to remember that we are human beings.


Talmida said...

Thanks for writing this, Liam. I sometimes have trouble with the idea of relics, but I like your explanation.

I still think it's a bit ghoulish to exhume a corpse to "harvest" relics, but as you say, the identity of the person is maintained, and the part is exhibited for veneration, not for an impersonal educational or sensational experience. I think that makes a huge difference.

cowboyangel said...

Hmmm... I've found the idea of this exhibit disturbing. But a friend of mine went to see it and said it was actually quite powerful. I wish you had gone and reported back - I'd be really curious to know what you thought. Your post sounds a little like someone criticizing a controversial film without having senn it.

You bring up some good points, especially about the trafficking in human bodies for profit. But, now that you bring it up, I'm not convinced that relics are so different. People have always profited from selling relics, most of which were probably body parts stolen out of the graves of human beings who had nothing to do with the saint. The end result of showing relics may be more exhalted than these current exhibits (or not, depending on how one feels about relics or the exhibits), but the rest of the process seems similar to me.

You know, hasn't anyone started doing DNA testing on all the relics out there? Does this finger of St. Bob match the bone fragment over at Our Lady of Beekeepers in Spain? Sooner or later it will happen.

Interesting to me that the most controversial aspect in the comments section you linked to was the high price of the exhibit: "But, controversy aside, low income people are shut out of this opportunity due to the high cost of the entrance fee." The dirty, ignorant masses want to have the same fun at the Freak Show as the aristocracy!

Barnum offered much, much more at a minimal price.

What really bothers me is purchasing Chinese bodies for an exhibit in the U.S. Do you think Americans would feel as comfortable looking at the plasticized, obese body of some woman from their hometown? I'm surprised they weren't low-paid Mexican bodies.

I keep thinking back to Americans visiting Spain who freaked out over seeing the dead, skinned animals in the markets. No styrofoam, plastic-wrapped unidentified meats there. Why were they so grossed out by seeing what they eat on an everyday basis? It was all so disgusting to them. Flesh. Physicality. Maybe this exhibit will get them in touch with their own existence a little more. Maybe they will remember that we are human beings.

Garpu the Fork said...

I was under the impression that when relics were taken, it was done in such a way as to not violate the integrity of the person. i don't see how injecting a body with plastic and stripping away the skin is remotely dignified.

And given China's human rights records, I wonder how many of those "unclaimed" bodies came from people who were part of non-state sponsored religions.

crystal said...

I remember reading an article about these exhibits a while ago at The New Atlantis ... Dead Body Porn - The Grotesqueries of the “Body World” Exhibit (link). It begins with this quote from Dante's Inferno ...

Clearly I saw, and the sight still comes back, a trunk without a head come walking on just like the others of that sullen pack, That held the chopped-off head by the long hanks,
hanging like a lantern from his hand.

It's weird ... on the one hand, I love fiction about morbid stuff like grave robbing and zombies and the undead. But in real life it's different. I've helped wrap up dead people to go to the morgue, seen people in surgery, skin peeled away and organs showing, and it is really disturbing.

I like relics too, though.

Jeff said...

Thanks Liam and Talmida, for bringing this up.

There was quite some buzz and controversy when the exhibit showed up here a couple of years back, particularly since it was being billed as an "art" exhibit rather than a "science" exhibit.

I find it ghoulish, offensive, and an affront to human dignity. The Chines angle is disturbing to me, mostly because of the abuse of human rights so prevalent there (and the myterious origin of these cadavers), but also because of our western sensibilities or lack thereof - we are rather blase about everything, as long as it isn't caucasian death being portrayed.

There are some aspects of relics, the wax-masked "incorruptibles" venerated by the church and the display of mummies that bothers me (particularly the mummies, because it is essentilly grave-robbing), but relics, mummies, and Tibetan sky burial are on thing... Plastic encased circulatory systems, musculature and skeleton posed athletically as "art" is something else altogether.

Heather McDougal said...

I saw Gunther von Hagens' Body World exhibit, of which this Chinese exhibit is essentially a knock-off, in London, in 2002. I had several reactions. At first it was quite interesting being able to see inside all the parts of the body, walk around it and see how it was taken apart. It was interesting to see inside the bones, see how the muscles interact, in a 3-dimensional way. The bodies had been preserved (as I assume these are) with a plasticizing agent, so they did not seem like real flesh, but finely detailed anatomical models.

After awhile, though, the creator's sense of humor, and his self-image as an "artist", began to show through. It was clear that he thought of these bodies as materials for his art. I'm not sure he thought of them as much more The colossalness of this, and the fact that the exhibit went on and on, floor after floor of bodies taken apart in increasingly facetious ways (one man was completely blown apart so that he was twice normal size, and then put on a double-sized bicycle as if he were riding it), began to get on my nerves. It seemed, in the end, gratuitous. As you say, the faces had been changed, and the bodies posed, and it felt like someone was simply playing around with what had once been real people.

It was explained that many of them were unidentified bodies from the morgue, and some of them were donated by their previous inhabitants expressly for the "art". Papers were available at the end of the show for you to sign up to donate your body to this man to turn into art, which was interesting, but I will say it did help put forward his cause. Still, I think the Chinese show is probably much more suspect.

I suppose my objection, in the show I saw, would be the transition from interest and wonder at the marvelousness of the flesh mechanisms that we live in, to the sheer numbers of people taken apart for our voyeuristic perusal. It began to feel like an invasion of privacy, or perhaps a bad science fiction scenario where people's bodies are simply expendible meat-puppets.

But perhaps that's their point; and it is exactly why they are nothing like relics.

(see http://www.bodyworlds.com/en/gunther_von_hagens/life.html to find out about this guy - and his ego)

Liam said...

Wow, blogger is supposed to tell me when people comment on the blog, so here I was thinking that no one had said anything. Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

Over at Talmida's blog, someone who had seen the exhibit made a similar point about criticizing something one hasn't seen. I admit that I can't say everyone who appreciated the exhibit did so for purient reasons, but I think I can comment on the idea of exhibiting human bodies this way. The concept is clear -- even if in the end it can be educational or artistic, I still think it's dehumanizing and ghoulish.

Yes there was quite a trade in relics and you can be certain that a number of them were false, but Talmida has a point -- the object was veneration. It same from a society that believed in the possible transcendance of the physical and the individual. Although many relics were fake, according to the ideal each relic was unique and irreplaceable. This exhibit is the opposite. One body is as good as another, and all of it can be bought and sold on the market. It is the ghoulish and dehumanizing apotheosis of consumer society.

Garpu the Fork said...

Ever seen the relic chapel at Sinsinawa Mound, a dominican community in Wisconsin? I was a bit sickened when I heard about it, but wandered in out of a kind of morbid curiosity. I wish I could find a picture of it online, but the care and love by which the relics are displayed is overwhelming.

Garpu the Fork said...

here we go! Knew there were pictures of some of it somewhere:


The place is much bigger, though. could easily seat 20 people.

Anonymous said...

Hi Liam,

For what its worth I agree with you. It is sad that the same people complaining about the chocolate Jesus aren't complaining about this issue. The two are linked, as you noted, though only tenuously.

Anonymous said...

"Our Body: The Universe Within" opens in Mobile, AL this month and, as a Roman Catholic, I am only reminded of the Corporal Work of Mercy to bury the dead with dignity. I am also reminded of Tienemun Square and the horrific acts against mankind that are well known in China. Perhaps I am a throwback and so be it. However, the display of human beings' remains as sideshow items appalls me. Why no one seems to care apalls me more. I do not want my reamains or those of my loved ones to become the grist of sideshow mill.

Liam said...

Hello anon, thanks for stopping by. People have told me the show is educational, etc., but I still stand by what I said.

Mom de Guerre said...

The difference between calling a freezer full of arms at a medical school acceptable and a freezer full of arms in Jeffery Daumer’s trailer a depraved crime is ETHICS. A medical student caught putting a cigarette in the hand of a cadaver would be expelled. A doctor or a funeral director slicing up a dead body in private would be guilty of - education? surely it is educational for them? - a crime: DESECRATION. There is no question that legitimate study of the human body is vastly beneficial. But do body exhibits for profit do anything for society as a whole, such as the benefit of training a doctor? No, its pure, personal, individual satisfaction of morbid curiosity.

Have you seen this NYTimes article? http://travel.nytimes.com/2006/08/08/business/worldbusiness/08bodies.html?pagewanted=print

No one knows where these bodies are coming from. No one at any level of our government is reviewing them. All we have are the entertainment company’s profiting employees to tell us its ‘ethical’. I can assure you they’re definition of ethics don’t match mine.

Thank you for your post and taking a stand against this abominable new form of entertainment.

Liam said...

Thanks very much for stopping by, MdG, and for your comments.