The first thing you notice: eerie, sleek, air-lock cleanliness. Bodies: The Exhibition being an emporium of dissected dead people, I expected cots and canvas, a triage tent with bloodstains and tears. I couldn't believe how many couples were on dates. An exhibition of dead bodies, apparently, is a romantic hot spot. I brought beef jerky.
The bodies on display are small and svelte, skinless, and Asian. Muscles and bones. Cross sections of neatly carved-up torsos. Wet- looking lungs and hearts. Kidneys, intestines, and dangling balls. Lots of balls. Bodies is a ball fest. Also: penises. One body is flayed into two parts—its skeleton holding hands with its muscular system (ball area included) in a macabre eternal jig. Even more unsettling were the eyelashes. Tiny, delicate fringes, so alive, so familiar, guarding soulless, piercing glass eyes. The eyelashes made the bodies look like they were about to say something. Something like "Stop staring at my balls."
There is a hands-on station where you can hold an actual human brain. A brain. From the head of a human. "Look at it!" my friend said, aghast and kind of sad, turning the brain over and over in her hands. "It's all full of memories!"
"Not anymore," barked the brain docent, dismissively. I smelled the brain. It smelled like a chanterelle mushroom.
Eating beef jerky at the Bodies exhibit feels wrong (also, it is explicitly against the rules). Going out for ribs afterward—which we also did—does too. But the Bodies exhibit is wrong and demented by nature. It is a bonanza of wrong. Corpses of (alleged) dead Chinese prisoners in jaunty sports poses? Wrong. Without proof of where they came from? Or consent? Wrong. Some, it is rumored, possibly victims of torture? Beyond wrong. At the Bodies exhibit, what you're dealing with are levels of wrongness. Adding jerky and ribs into the equation is an attempt to attain a higher (wronger) level of wrong. I was only playing their game. Bathing in the wrong.
I couldn't escape thinking about the bodies' origins. I didn't see an incredible and artistically dissected human machine shooting a basketball and think, "Wow, look at the way the veins stem out of the triceps and lead to the fingers." I thought, "Damn, I can't believe they took a dead Chinese prisoner, burned off his skin, and put a basketball in his hand and his balls on display."
Premier Exhibitions, the Atlanta, Georgia, company behind Bodies, has admitted that "the bodies were not formally donated by people who agreed to be displayed." Everywhere I looked, I couldn't help but invent narratives: Some Chinese peasant spent the last 15 years of his life imprisoned for stealing a pear for his daughter, was worked to death in a concentration camp, then his body was sold for $300 and ended up in the hands of Premier Exhibitions, which had his skin burned off with acid and his body pumped full of liquid rubber, then posed him like he's throwing darts with the guys at the local tavern, and then carted him around the world in a wooden crate, to be ogled by teenagers on dates. I bet the guy never threw darts in his life. Now he's aiming for a bull's-eye for the rest of eternity, with his spleen hanging out.
Another corpse was sliced up into thin horizontal sections. It looked like ham. Like a meat and cheese plate without the cheese.
Feeling slightly freaked, we decided it was jerky time. It was a racy escapade, sneaking the bites of hard, dry meat while standing around inside the exhibition of hard, dry meat. But it's one of those things you do, to see what it's like—like cocaine or skydiving or a handlebar mustache. It's an upping of the ante.
We came to the one female body in the exhibit. We named her Rebecca. Or Becky, if you're feeling casual. Rebecca is commanding. She is completely shaved. There was more of a crowd around Rebecca than around the other bodies—something about her was compelling. The exhibit took on a whole new meaning for my friend, a woman, when she and Rebecca came face to face. "Knowing it's a woman makes me uncomfortable. It's more personal now. I was okay when I thought they were all dudes."
It was hard to chew on beef jerky without being seen, so we left Rebecca for a dimmer, less crowded lower level. I managed to sneak a big bite of jerky (teriyaki) in the empty stairwell. I slipped through a doorway and ended up in the fetus room—a somber chamber of unborn babies of varying ages and phases. Not exactly the place—of all the spots in Bodies—you want to be gnawing on jerky. The 30-week-old fetus looked exactly like a doll. Some floated in fluid. I chewed.
Ethics and rumors and controversy aside, seeing these formerly alive humans up close, and understanding the scientific process behind preserving and displaying them, is undeniably fascinating. The "specimens" are dissected, dunked in acetone, placed in a large bath of silicone polymer, and then sealed in a vacuum chamber. Basically, they turn from flesh into plastic and will never decay. From the Bodies website: "All the bodies were obtained through the Dalian Medical University Plastination Laboratories in the People's Republic of China. Asia possesses the largest and most highly competent group of dissectors in the world, and they are highly skilled in preparing the bodies for educational and scientific purposes."
The official word from Bodies: The Exhibition is that these people died from "natural causes." They say the law doesn't allow them to disclose information about identity or cause of death. Nothing at the exhibit clearly addresses any of the torture rumors (floated by people like New York's attorney general Andrew Cuomo: "The grim reality is that Premier Exhibitions has profited from displaying the remains of individuals who may have been tortured and executed in China"). You'd think the whole thing would be one giant disclaimer.
We wandered on and came, at last, to the lone butthole. A butthole away from its body. No cheeks, just tubing. A solitary butthole in a square glass display case. Like one would look—with admiration and awe—upon a teacup recovered from the Titanic, we stood and gawked at this lonely, sliced-out, slightly hairy human hole. A mummified lone butthole. Mummified and glowing under track lighting. There I stood, entranced, bewildered, gnawing, tasting leather and hickory.
On our way out, we passed the Bodies merchandise for sale: toy eyeballs, keychain spines, bone-shaped pens, and some fake formaldehyde squeezy toy holding more eyeballs and little skulls. The merchandise is a circus of wrong. A black hole of wrong. I bought three Bodies pens, as gifts.
Then we went to Willie's Taste of Soul. Meat. I saw fibulas. I couldn't get the dart-throwing dart-man out of my head. I was eating dart-man. Dart-man would throw his dart at my nuts. Rebecca, shaven Rebecca. Her power pose. Pork ribs. A pile of ribs on a plate. Not in a power pose. Willie's food is delicious, but it didn't go down easy. I'm sorry, Rebecca.