Much media attention has been given to German anatomist Gunther von Hagens' traveling road show Körperwelten (Body Worlds), where bodies preserved by a polymer infusing technique called plastination are exhibited in various stages of dissection. Despite questions about the legality and ethics of how the corpses were obtained, the show was an international success and spawned many imitators. Now, one of them, Bodies ... The Exhibition, has arrived in the Triangle, at, of all places, The Streets at Southpoint.
Southpoint mall, carefully synthesized to emulate the idealized façade of a well-ordered but impossibly sanitized metropolitan arcade, is an interesting place to locate such a show—especially considering that the exhibit's representatives at Premier Exhibitions Inc. claim that all of the bodies and body parts were harvested in China by Dalian Medical University Plastination Laboratories (which, incidentally, has been accused of using executed prisoners for commercial gain in the past). The opportunity afforded allows American suburbanites to saunter through a "perfect city"—sans panhandlers, the homeless and street musicians—and pick up cheap Chinese-made plastic products before gawking at authentic plasticized Chinese bodies—bodies which might, visitors may half-seriously muse, have actually labored to manufacture the overpriced junk they're taking home.
Viewers approaching the exhibit, which is located on Southpoint's "Main Street," may hear Glenn Frey's insidious The Heat is On blaring from speakers hidden in plastic rocks—an appropriate musical choice given the fact that the mall is private property and no doubt under intense surveillance. (Exercise of First Amendment rights in this mall could lead to ejection, as Jon Elliston reported in the Indy in 2003: "Takin' it to the 'Streets'".) Southpoint is a place for and about money, and while potentially subversive writers must take care not to draw attention to their activities, Atlanta-based corporations like Premier Exhibitions Inc. are free to parade human flesh—if for a buck.
The show's press kit includes a quote from Reyn Bowman, president and CEO of the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau, who enthusiastically chimes, "All told, Bodies ... The Exhibition is expected to help generate $24 million in overall spending in Durham with a net economic impact on the community of $17 million." If human cadavers and the "great educational opportunity" that Mayor William "Bill" Bell (who's also been co-opted in the show's press release) says they offer aren't something to get excited about, $17 million apparently is.
Considering the capital raked in by the "bereavement industry," it's apparent that the dominant consumerist culture has a peculiar fascination with death, a fascination unknown to hunter gathering tribes like the animist Baka, who, according to neo-Luddite Kirkpatrick Sale, leave their dead to be eaten, saying, "When you're dead you're dead and that's the end of you." (The only overt acceptance of this mundane fact that our mass culture can muster appears to be the splatter movie.)
The ritualization (and fetishizing) of death originates in the fear of it, which, in lives of quiet desperation, is ever lurking. The thought of annihilation is unbearable when preciously finite lives are spent trudging through the dislocations of the contemporary world. The existence of Southpoint mall and other such cathedrals to consumption can be explained by the collective consciousness's longing to flee mortality. Masses clamor for distraction, sweet or banal, and, ultimately, absorption into pop-culture oblivion.
Unlike the original Körperwelten, which this writer experienced in Berlin on its first European run, Bodies lacks any sort of pretension beyond presenting human anatomy in medical terms. The great philosophical conclusion of the show appears to be little more than "smoking is unhealthy," which is effectively demonstrated by placing a smoker's lung alongside a non-smoker's. The superior Körperwelten arranged its human and non-human corpses into allegory- and metaphor-informed constructions, producing aesthetic creations that Goethe or da Vinci would have appreciated. Bodies, on the other hand, seems to be aimed squarely at a distinctly more American, and, shall we say, mall-going audience.
Though it doubtless wasn't Premier Exhibitions Inc.'s intention, the show does include one piece that could serve as a totem for our age. "Alimentary System" grandiosely mounts an individual digestive track vertically on a wall. Is there a better emblem for the modern mall mentality than disembodied bowels connecting a headless mouth to an ass-less anus?
All this isn't to say that Bodies is not without its merits. Anyone interested in the mysteries of ontology will find the exhibit's exposed skeletal, muscular and organ structures of interest. And there's the fetus room, which reminds us that at 12 weeks a human being resembles nothing more than a pale cockroach. Younger specimens look like lima beans. Those who feel squeamish will doubtless find other amusements in the wider world—the mall, that is.
Bodies ... The Exhibition runs through Aug. 5. To purchase tickets, call (866) 866-8265 or visit www.BodiesTickets.com. This summer, the original Körperwelten exhibit will be on view at Charlotte's Discovery Place from June 13-Oct. 28.