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What Lies Beneath 

Examining the Body Worlds exhibit after all the hype

My internal jury is still out on this one.

I had been primed on this show through anecdotal evidence -- word of mouth, media blips, Internet references and reviews ranging from spectacular to ghoulish. So I was primed with awe and revulsion before I stepped in the door, and I still arrived unprepared.

Body Worlds: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies is a static view of the inner workings moiling beneath our own skin. As the slick and well-put-together media kit promises: "Real Humans. Real Science. Really Amazing!"

My 12-year-old jury member emphatically concurs with the last declaration -- the sight of these skinless bodies in action figure poses is no less than amazing. My jury member #4 wants to quibble semantics over the Real Humans claim. Yes, they were once real humans, he says, but they are humans no longer. They are specimens, figuratively hollow, literally skinless vestiges of the humans they once were. Dr. Dim, another juror, thinks the science value takes a back seat to the entertainment value. "Who's paying $22 to get an anatomy lesson, and who's paying $22 to ogle at the entrails of the recent dead?" That guy is a party pooper. Dr. Cutting Edge, another jury member, begs to differ. "This is anatomy in its most advanced form. There are no replications here; this is what really is under the skin. Dr. von Hagens has taken anatomy worlds beyond the illustration and model."

It's looking like a hung jury.

What's the jury in a huff about? Body Worlds is an anatomy exhibit created by Dr. Gunther von Hagens. Von Hagens is a scientist and the inventor of Plastination, the process of replacing body fluids with resins and elastomers. His process transforms formerly functional tissue into permanent, rigid specimens: both discrete body parts like organs, arteries and tendons, and whole bodies. That sounds a little too clinical for what you'll be smacked with at the show. What I saw initially -- on first impact -- was described well by a kid I overheard talking on his cell phone as he exited the show: "... buncha naked, skinless dead people jumping around." That kid was booted from my jury through voir dire.

I needed to get past that kid to join the advanced troops and tout the party line: This show is for those interested in the mechanics of the human body. The press release unburdened me of a pressing concern: What is the purpose of the exhibition?

Body Worlds aims to educate the public about the inner workings of the human body and to show the effects of poor health, good health and lifestyle choices. It also is presented in the hopes it will stimulate curiosity about the science of anatomy.

OK.

The Basketball Player, a whole body Plastinate, is the most galvanizing specimen here. This model was developed and composed to show off the man's extraordinary muscle construction. The intestines were removed to show the back muscle through the belly. Biceps, triceps, deltoids and pecs strain and bulge from his size 13 foot to the top of his skull, which is cracked open at the forehead to expose his brain. It occurs to me that I involuntarily do two things as I marvel at this man: I see him as other than me -- a robot or an alien perhaps -- and then I mentally try to re-dress him in his skin. I empathize with his nakedness, how lamely human of me. I'm regressing already.

Another extraordinary piece is The Chess Player, who sits at a table staring at a chessboard, contemplating a move he'll never make. This man has been dissected to show the central and peripheral nervous systems. The top of his skull is removed to expose his brain. The back of his neck is opened to expose his vertebral canal with peripheral nerves sprouting left and right like a nest of ivy wrapping a tree trunk. The spinal cord is exposed from brain stem to coccyx, with neural pathways exiting the main line east, west and south. The bilateral symmetry of his body is laced with countless nerve fibers racing over and within his body and muscle. What hand could make this thing?

Two pieces rub me wrong, each one for a different reason, both indicative of the reasons this show brings out the prude and the wussy in me.

Reclining Pregnant Woman has been split through her belly, her uterus and placenta to show a fetus cradled in her womb. The fetus is large (11") and has pushed her abdominal organs up in her stomach cavity. The woman leans on one elbow, looks away and extends one arm up and away as she cradles her head in her palm -- the classic bathing beauty pose. Her reanimation is ill-conceived and mocks her present (dead) state. It's glib and creepy.

The Runner shows two systems simultaneously: skeletal and muscular. Each muscle has been detached from one skeletal attachment point and flops in the wind as the specimen runs. Muscles trail ankles, knees, wrists, elbows and hips like bacon sliced from the bone. This one is painful to ponder, and impossible to detach myself from the urge to put those strands of muscle back where they belong.

A number of Body Worlds specimens teach cautionary tales to those who don't yet know a love affair with Marlboros or McDonald's can kill you. "Smoking is suicide on the installment plan." A number of exhibits compare the healthy lung to the black one, show the damaged, air-pocked lungs from emphysema and a lung swallowed by cancer.

Obesity Revealed emphatically illustrates the body defiled with subcutaneous fatty tissue. A comparison of two sagittally cut specimens -- a 120 pounder and a 300 pounder -- reveals the stressed inner organs and enlarged heart of the big guy. The big guy's heart gave out at 50 years old.

Body Worlds: The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies boasts an excellent catalogue, filled with color illustrations and essays by scientists and professors, and a philosopher who defends the dignity of Plastinates. To the credit of the exhibition's creator, a dissenting view of the show by the dean of the Lutheran Church of Mannheim, the show's first venue, was printed in the catalogue.

On the back cover of the catalogue is a quote from Dr. von Hagens: "Plastination unveils the beauty beneath the skin, frozen in time between death and decay." I beg to differ. To appreciate this show, forget the beauty notion, suppress the spectacle mind-set, and abandon the thought that these are Edna's eyes, Uncle Billy's brain tumor or Eddie's lungs. Only then will these static people become specimens. As specimens, they can become revealing, instructional and sometimes extraordinary. But never beautiful.

When I left the show, I vaguely felt the urge to apologize to the skinless folks for naughty stint of peeping. I couldn't thoroughly unmake them people. A silly notion; I can always hope to outgrow my useless empathic embarrassment.

It appears the jury is still out. I'll return to see the show once more, and try to avoid a mistrial.

The Body Worlds exhibit is showing through Oct. 28 at Discovery Place. For details, call 704-372-6261 or visit www.discoveryplace.org.

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