Wednesday, September 21, 2005


For those who have been checking back on this blog and have been continuously disappointed for the past week or so... I'm sorrrrrrry! I just don't have time and energy to do focused writing, and I'm not inclined to casual blogging without much thought (except for these occasional excuses and apologies, that is). I've had so many topics to write about ("March of the Penguins" and conservative Christian values, delight in Boccaccio, experience of public sphere at Chicago's Millennium Park, etc.), which I'm afraid I'm quickly forgetting. This is pathetic... I'm a full time college student, but I don't even work, and I'm barely juggling the readings and papers... Hopefully I'll have some time to slow down after Thursday.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

exposed but enshrined: on the presentation of embryonic specimens in the Body Worlds

As I wrote in the previous post, I wasn't disturbed by the Body Worlds exhibit, despite my anticipation. Except for their treatment of the embryos, that is.

General concensus (and the way they advertise the exhibit as well) is that it is an exhibition of human bodies, skinned, disected, colored, and plasticized with amazing technology, to show the construction of our bodies. And it is generally true; adult bodies were skinned, disected, sliced, (some even had their tissues melted away to show the quite amazing network of blood vessels,) and put into various funny poses, which some might find offensive.

The exception was with the fetuses and embryos. Of about two dozen specimens, only one was NOT in the whole. It was a slice of an embryo in a transparent plastic cube. Its pose was the familiar fetus position. It was dyed in fleshy red, which was also an anomaly; all the other, sliced adult bodies in transparent plastic were dyed in browns, greens, yellows--colors reminiscent of minerals, not flesh. Other embrionic specimens were all in their entirety, all in the familiar fetus position. Not even one of them was skinned to show the "inside." Except for to show their development in terms of size, there was no apparent scientific reason to display so many fetuses and embryos in their entirety. And this, is totally strange within the context of the entire exhibit, which is to show the "inside" of our bodies.

Most of the specimens of the fetuses/embryos were segregaed in a small curtained section (which is probably out of consideration for those who might find this part too disturbing, due to their moral, religious, or political inclinations). In this small shrine, literally cradled in special white satin cloth (the luxurious delicacy of which all the adult specimens weren't entitled to enjoy), looking like "real" babies in dead gray skin, the specimens were far more disturbing (to me) than their adult conuterpart, which were forced into funny poses and overt display of muscles, nerves, and ligaments. The feeling of the "real" was preserved with the embryonic specimens. The feeling of violating the sanctity of human bodies was carefully preserved, or even created, through the strange juxtaposition of exposure (the embryos are out to be seen) and concealment (and yet their skins are intact, and they're enshrined in a little corner).

Furthermore, a sort of classical, soft music was playing in that little section of the fetuses and embryos. Ever so subtle, but the effect was evident: more appeal to emotion. This is also something that didn't exist around the adult specimens. At this point, I have to wonder, what are they endorsing here? What are these subtle manipulations for? In the context of hysteric controversy over abortion in the U.S., it seems obvious. The embryos were displayed in such a way that appeal to our emotion, advocating their "helpless humanness" and thus the "murderousness" of abortion. To preserve their "humanness," and to disturb the viewers, the exhibit had to show the embryos undisected. To show their "inside" would have injured the sanctity of their humanness. In order to emphasize their helplessness, they had to be shown in their familiar fetal position, alluding to our common image of embryos protected in the "warmth of the mother's womb." And when they had to be disected, the bloodiness, fleshiness should be preserved, lest the spectators be desensitized (which is exactly what happened with the perfectly clean disected specimens of adults). And of course, the music.

I don't know anything about the political inclination of Gunther von Hagen, the creator of the plasticized bodies. But from what I saw at the Body Worlds exhibit, it seems pretty obvious that the exhibit is supposed to perform a public role in the debate of abortion, in support of one view that I'm afraid is becoming the majority. Aside from the political agenda, the "baby section" (which, I think, was given a euphemistic title that I can't remember) was interesting in its display of intricate interplay between the exposure and concealment, and how these two manipulations influence our perception of what is inherently disturbing, and, plainly put, gross.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Gunther von Hagen's "Body Worlds": belated overview

What feels like a long time ago, yet still only a bit more than a week ago, I went to see Gunther von Hagen's "Body Worlds," on its last day in Chicago. It was definitely a world of bodies--not dead, plasticized ones, but curious, increasingly tired, living bodies filling up the huge exhibition space, leaving literally no open space. It was incredibly crowded. We wait about 25 minutes before our ticket time was called (15 minutes late). We took an escalator upstairs. There was a line, far longer than the one we just escaped. The same kind of densely packed winding line you see in the security check points of airports these days. We moseyed ahead, spending about 20 minutes. When we entered through a gate, we found still other line behind the partition (clever tactics on the part of the MoSI). We spent about an hour in total to go through the rotating gate into the exhibition hall, where, again, we found separate lines to actually see the bodies and body parts on display up close. "There's really no meaning to this timed ticket system! There's no way they can pack more people in here," I heard somebody exclaim, as I spent leisurely 5 minutes to examine a skinned, happily grinning, dancing comedian (with his muscles flying around in all directions). It was worse than exhausting: most visitors were too tired to see anything by the time they reached the mid-point. (Therefore, the latter half of the exhibit, where more graceful figures were displayed, was relatively empty and quiet, utterly unappreciated.) Though I might not have been the best visitor to judge, since I was still slowly recovering from a bad cold I had caught a few days ago, my company of totally healthy individuals had a lot to complain.

Despite all the controversy surrounding the exhibit, I didn't find the dead human bodies disturbing in any way--except for those of embryos, for reasons I will specify in the next post. I expected that it would require a little mental effort to suppress the visceral disgust at the sight of treated corpses to fully appreciate the intricacy of their construction and the technology used to preserve them in such a way. Instead, I didn't have to try to forget the fact that they are indeed real--somehow, the bodies had been stripped of their reality during the process of plastination and marketing. They appeared (physically and emotionally) nothing more than a set of incredibly well-made model, a dozen notches above the ones slowly dusting in the dimness of the science stock room. The transparent slices of the bodies felt nothing more than a piece of crystal with beautiful pattern inside. Like the factory-packaged cuts of beef, neatly sealed (even with a diaper to soak up the bloody drip) and arranged in supermarket cooling cases, the bodies were devoid of factors to incite emotion.

The undertone of the exhibit was that of the infamous "health and hygiene show," a ubiquitous, itinerant show of pickled body parts infected with unspeakable diseases and preserved embryos with severe deformation, often held in a shabby tent as a part of seasonal fairs, very popular in late 19th and early 20th century in Japan (and possibly many other parts of the world as well). Under the guise of educational and scientific purposes, the driving force of these exhibits were bare curiosity to sneak a look at the horrific taboo. In this era of ostensible absence of bodily taboos, the Body Worlds still had the similar feel, with its overwhelming emphasis on bodies and body parts, with very few explanatory plaques and supportive artifacts to illustrate the build and the works of the human body. "This is how it looks. Isn't that great?" was the message. The main focus of the Body Worlds seemed to be on the amazement at the beautifully preserved muscles, blood vessels, and nerve systems. It seems to be still too early for the novelty of the technology to sink in and to be ready to be used for truly scientific and educational purposes, combined with other measures of illustration.

Overall, the exhibit was worth visiting (despite the exhausting congestion). It was, however, not because of its scientific virtues but the storm of rich social and historical issues it raised in my brain. For $16, the experience could have been more comfortable, but then again, we should have visited it earlier, not on its last day, which is so obviously doomed to be super-crowded.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

on New Orleans

A beat-up minivan slowly inches ahead among thousands of people. Some have laggages, backpacks, others have nothing. All are drenched with rain, tired, and terrified. Terrified with the scenes they have seen, terrified with the scenes that might lie ahead. First one by one, then quickly in packs, they start the attempt to stop the van. They yell to stop, bang the windows, jump on the hood. A man smashes open a hole in the windshield with a baseball bat. Waves of desperate people push around the van, like millions of balck ants crawling over and covering up a dead insect. The driver of the van shouts at his horrified daughter in the rear seat to get down. He tries to plow through the crowd, now determined to stop the van. Another man, panic in his eyes, insert his bare hands into the hole of the windshield, grabs the rim, and trys to tear it open, oblivious of blood running out of his now scarred hands. His blood traces the tiny squared cracks of the glass. His eyes bluge. The bones of his knuckles protrude. The coated glass makes horrible ripping sound like an arm being ripped off from a body by sheer force. Another window gets smashed, an arm reaches in, unlocks the door. Within a blink, the rear of the minivan is packed with men struggling to secure their position in the ephemeral safety. The girl screams, in fear of being parted from her father. The father tries to reach her through the broken window, but it is blocked with a body of a man squirming in through the rugged edges of the shattered glass.

As the news reports from New Orleans grow grimmer and grimmer, my mind floated back to the especially intense scene in the "War of the Worlds." To flee from the city under Martian's attack, the father steals a minivan on the street and drives off with his two kids, only to run into desperate refugees a few hundred yards from the only bridge that connects the city to the countryside. Even without a single death, the scene is extremely intense--almost too intense to bear for a naive mind of mine. The sense of desperation, growing hatred toward the priviledged (however little the actual difference may be), and total abandoonment of civilized behavior under an extreme stress, they all make one wonder if it would happen if the same situations broke out in reality. I wondered if I would try to tear open a windshield of a vehicle with my bear hands. I wondered what I would do if I were in such an awkward (well, far more than awkward) situation of having a little advantage over others in an emergency. Say, if I had a bottle of water and a chocolate bar, would I share them, or would I hide them from others? At the end of the day, I just abandoned the questions, just hoping it would never happen to me.

But it does happen. A total chaos in suffocating heat, no food, no drinkable water, moisture of densely packed human bodies condensing on everything, unbearable odor of human feces, dead bodies left unattended in parking lots, no authoritative presence to turn to, no information as to where to go, what to do, when the help might come. Armed men ransacking stores and houses, gasolines stolen from stolled cars, shootings over god-knows-what, ten-year-old girl being raped in a refugee camp, two nights in a row. Apparently this is what happens. Even without the invasion of the blood-sucking, flesh-grinding Martians. This is what happens in what we believe to be a civilized country. Of course, the information at this point could be partial, even confused. Some of the lootings must be done in an organized way, as the last resort to feed the starving people. But others are definitely not. You don't go out and rape a girl because of a hurricane. It is depressing enough. Terrifying enough. Both the acts out of desperation and those based on calculation terrify me. For what human beings can be forced to be, and can want to be.

I just hope that help and order are on the way.