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Checking online listings for things I am missing out on (as I recuperate with a broken foot I’ve gone on about), especially Fridays, I happened upon “Bodies” for Friday, February 8. This exhibition (which closes on Sunday, February 10) I thought of as a Friday activity because of its location at University Towne Centre, where there are so many other Friday-oriented things to do. One can shop, dine, take in a movie, and, depending on how strong your stomach might be, either before or after dinner, educate oneself on the human anatomy. I know it might well put me off of food or induce queasiness afterward.

Not only am I squeamish to a large extent, I have grown to think of the human body, as I age, as treacherous, a complicated system of fragile parts waiting to go wrong.

The “Bodies” exhibit listing reads, in part: “Features more than 250 “real, whole, and partial human body specimens...dissected and preserved, providing up-close looks inside skeletal, muscular, reproductive, respiratory, circulatory, and other human body systems. Many whole-body specimens are dissected in vivid athletic poses.” Found in former Robinson’s-May store. 877-263-4375. When: Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Fridays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sundays from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. The address, in case you don’t know where UTC is, would be 4425 La Jolla Village Drive.

I have been given much opportunity over the years and more intensively in the recent past for meditations on the human body. So much has gone wrong with my own for reasons having to do with age, lifestyle, heredity, etc., but to a large degree, the seemingly random.

Cancer at the age of 35, for example, has never been explained adequately, even to oncologists who are clueless as to the why of its onset. Hodgkin’s disease (called sometimes “the young person’s disease”), which is a particular type of lymphoma, was the culprit. No history of it in the family. One odious oncologist made a feeble attempt to direct blame at my smoking or drinking, but this idea was shot down by several other MDs in the same field whom I consulted over 14 months. Environmental? Maybe. It is possible they’ve come closer to pinpointing causes since 1985 — they have certainly improved a victim’s odds since then — but I hardly keep up with medical journals on the subject. In fact, I pretty much repress the whole thing. It comes under the category of “Anyone Get the Number of That Truck? No? Oh Well.” Or, Shit Happens or Life’s Rich Tapestry, whatever you like.

That same odious oncologist referred to my heart failure in 2002 (I listed his name as a medical reference, and he came in very briefly to see me in the hospital) as “alcoholic cardio myopathy.” In the weeks and months that followed, I asked cardiologists if my condition could be neatly ascribed to alcohol — after all, my father died of the same thing at the age of 49 and drank a couple of beers he didn’t finish in front of a televised ball game on Sundays — and I was told, “No.”

Recently I broke, fractured, and dislocated an ankle by changing directions suddenly on a staircase. The orthopedic techs and surgeons alike made noises such as, “Oooh, jeez!” while grimacing in the most unreassuring way. I had assumed they saw this kind of thing every day…well, fairly often. That they did not is maybe a point for those in the camp of “the miraculous machine that is the human body.” While it is typical of me and my regrettable cynicism, I will again say that for those reasons mentioned above, along with countless indignities and bits of patchwork that become so necessary with age, I consider the human body, paradoxically, a gift (a major one) from God and a prime example of his awful brand of mercy.

That the exhibit at UTC displays circulatory, muscular, and respiratory systems and whole-body specimens “in vivid athletic poses” strikes me as ironic. Humorous in the way that I find the spectacle of an elderly jogger, his face a rictus of determination as he slams his pancreas and liver against the pavement, one foot after the other, a hellhound called the inevitable on his trail, humorous. Certainly not in a thigh-slapping way, but you know what I mean.

I hope this column is published before the “Bodies” exhibition closes on February 10. If not and I’ve whetted your appetite for nothing, I apologize. Either way, I know I will miss it. Now that I think of it, I have other plans through February 10, which I intend to make immediately.

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Comments

EricBlair Feb. 6, 2008 @ 7:49 p.m.

Hi Johnnie B. Glad to see your column. The exhibit you describe is deeply creepy. Some of the exhibits like the one you describe have been constructed from the bodies of criminals executed in China. There is a metaphor in there somewhere.

As for the whys and hows of Fate, I can only quote Spider Robinson (wreathed in cannibis smoke): God is an iron. He commits ironies.

Thinking of you, my friend. Remembering your foray into Country Western music....

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cosmo Feb. 6, 2008 @ 8:42 p.m.

At some point while strolling through the Bodies exhibit it dawns on you that every corpse is Chinese. Most of them are young Chinese men, to be specific, their testicles separated and exposed to the crowds. I never realized before how, when you remove the scrotum, the two testes separate and hang straight down like pendulums.

Or both layers of the scrotum resected so that the dead organ underneath is exposed like a window within a window.

In 1980 while walking through the city of Shenzhen in southern China a dark, blue, unmarked wagon full of prisoners passed me. All I could see of the prisoners was their hands clutching the bars of the small window at the back of the wagon, and in that way they gave themselves some little stability as the prison wagon bounced along the road.

Years later I saw a TV documentary on the many healthy, young men who were executed in China with a bullet to the back of the brain -- a method of execution that preserves the health of the kidney -- and then their kidneys were sold to Americans for $5,000 each.

What does it take to be a criminal in China?

Could it be that these men and women were what we would call heroes?

The young man who faced off a tank just before the massacre at Tienamen Square. Is he now stripped of his skin, posed like an Olympic discus thrower, with his dead naked penis exposed to the world at University Towne Centre?

And did some sadistic Communist officer in a drab green uniform torment him with that thought before his execution? "I will strip your skin off your body and expose your organs to the world forever!"

Maybe it's better if I don't know.

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SD Feb. 12, 2008 @ 11 a.m.

Cosmo,

maybe it's better if you do a little research. It's never better that you don't know!

I don't believe that Gunther von Hagens, the originator of the plastination process--and Bodyworlds exhibit-- had truck with human rights violations; he has an odd sense of humor but an apparently legitimate business--of which the exhibitions provide the sole source of funding for lab work. It takes a LOT of work to plastinate bodily specimens, and it is claimed that costs are barely offset by the fees colleges pay for these specimens.

I think there were rumors of misuse of Russian corpses before the Chinese lab was established, and who knows? Perhaps some hinky dealings with funds, if anything, but one thing is clear.

Von Hagens does not lack for volunteers. There is a whole society of international donors who have pledged their bodies to be plastinated--not solely for exhibit as whole specimens, but as 'body slices' for closer--and nearly incorruptible--models for medical study, most often by med students.

However, it is not certain what has happened or is happening with the former trainee who ran off to start "Bodies" on his own. I can say that the "Bodies" exhibit is rather travel-worn, and the specimens more poorly rendered, and obviously less cared-for than those in BodyWorlds.

I don't have time to get into it much more here, and I cannot claim to have 100% facts either. I simply did some background research before presenting at a Berkeley lit conference on a kind of outrageous aesthetics presented by plastinates.

SD

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EricBlair Feb. 12, 2008 @ 3:07 p.m.

Oh, I quite agree that researching a subject is pretty important.

For example, there is genuine criticism regarding the exhibits John Brizzolara is describing. There is NO requirement for "proof of donation" for the current exhibition under discussion, and it is very clear that many of the exhibits are in fact executed prisoners.

In fact, there is very little oversight at all.

I'll leave aside the dehumanizing aspects of this sort of thing, and the fact that at least once, the exhibits were poorly prepared and "leaked" during an exhibition.

As for von Hagens, he may have indeed received consent for some of his creations, which are not educational but sensationalistic (example: a man carrying his own skin). The same cannot be so easily said for his exhibitions of the bodies of children and fetuses, where informed consent is...ah...not so easily obtained.

But don't take my word for it. Wikipedia, for all of its faults, is a good place to start.

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cosmo Feb. 12, 2008 @ 10:22 p.m.

If I had it to write over, I would mention that China has no rule of law: that justice is handed down by local governors who have taken the place of the mandarins and warlords. The more things change the more they stay the same.

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SD Feb. 13, 2008 @ 9:29 p.m.

Dear Eric,

A public forum, I know, but I was directing my comment about research--with no rancor--to Cosmo, with whom I have had nothing but pleasant discourse.

Just curious, Eric. Did you both start and end with Wikipedia?

I recognize many phrases from uncited sources that were probably tacked together in your Wikipedia article.

In the latter part of your reply I am not sure which exhibit you are discussing, so further comment on my part would make no sense.

I also do not wish to get into a discussion of medical ethics, and will only say that I respect your position, and hope that whatever the problem, you try to work it from more than one angle.

But you, Eric, have definitive proof of some kind?

"...it is very clear that many of the exhibits are executed prisoners."

Wow! Can you please provide that proof? Would you be willing to give a lecture on this material?

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EricBlair Feb. 15, 2008 @ 4:14 p.m.

Well, I don't mean to get into blog battles...but I am amused that you think that I would use Wikipedia as a research tool. If you intended to insult me, you failed. I am a scientist and teacher by profession, and I know better.

I don't mind your snark, but it does take away from your attempts at politesse.

I'm not interested in lecturing, since this is my friend John Brizzolara's microphone. But this subject may be of interest to people, who should read for themselves and make up their own minds.

http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/visualart/286689_bodies28.html

http://www.dispatch.com/live/content/local_news/stories/2007/09/15/bodies.ART_ART_09-15-07_B1_KL7TINA.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/18/nyregion/18bodies.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

http://www.thepittsburghchannel.com/news/15313582/detail.html?rss=pit&psp=news

Just to be clear, the last reference contains the following:

"But Ross wanted answers, so he went to China to investigate. Dalian University told him they have no connection with the exhibit and do not provide any bodies to Premier Exhibitions, which is the company that runs the show in Pittsburgh.

"We found the place they get their bodies from way outside of town, littered with garbage and what we were told was that we found the core of what essentially is a black market in bodies," said Ross.

Additionally, Ross said he found that the cadavers were obtained in violation of Chinese law and that some were executed prisoners.."

You can certainly deny Ross' reporting, if you like. The organizers of the exhibitions do.

But I think it is fair to say that there is no paper trail for these bodies, any attempt to find out has not panned out, and China has a uncontestedly horrid human rights record---the trafficking of human body parts from executed prisoners for transplant and other purposes.

It seems to me that it should be easy to create exhibitions from bodies donated legally and with paper trails to document that fact. The exhibition under discussion is not one of them.

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EricBlair Feb. 15, 2008 @ 4:47 p.m.

By the way, I asked a faculty member who teaches anatomy about this subject. He pointed me in this direction:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2006/apr/02/china.arts

My favorite part is this quote:

"Hongjin's record has been called into question in the past. In 2004 he and von Hagens were accused of using the bodies of political prisoners in a similar exhibition, Body Worlds - charges which they denied. They did, however, return seven bodies from their exhibition to China after two were found to have bullet holes in the back of their heads."

True or not? Who can say? As for art, I'm with my old friend Chad C. Mulligan, from "The HipCrime Vocab":

"Art: an old friend of mine whose name has been taken in vain recently." To each their own.

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cosmo Feb. 16, 2008 @ 7:20 p.m.

How delightful to find this discussion going on past Wednesday for a change!

What does it take to be a criminal in China? I will answer my own question: because there is no rule of law, to be a criminal in China means you have run afoul of the local governor. Some of those "criminals" are probably my kind of people.

That dark blue wagon in Shenzhen rolled past me for maybe five seconds, but I will remember it as long as I live. Looking through that window on the back panel, I could see that it was pitch black inside. That small, barred window was all those prisoners had for light and ventilation in that hot, dusty climate.

Thank you, Eric and SD, for doing this research and for keeping this conversation going.

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SD Feb. 21, 2008 @ 12:32 a.m.

Thanks for providing another source, Eric, and I will check it out, despite frustration with the subject, having spoken to a number of anatomists, scientists, etc. while researching for a conference as well as at the actual conference, which took shape at Berkeley as: undeadconference.com Yes, I snarked at you, having felt that your offer of Wikipedia "as a start" was in itself a kind of insult. Glad you and your credentials weren't annoyed, and so we all go on.

Cosmo, it's Suzanne Daniels (lazily, "SD," now that we must "identify" ourselves) of our earlier worries over JB's situation. Glad to read that things are a bit better there. Looking forward to your future postings.

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cosmo March 2, 2008 @ 11:55 a.m.

SD, Thank you for identifying yourself.

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cosmo March 3, 2008 @ 9:38 p.m.

And here I was thinking SD stood for San Diego. :-)

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