Late to every trend, I missed the first Body Worlds show at the California Science Center. Also the second.
It was too much for my morbid soul, this notion of bodies preserved by replacing water with polymers, flayed and partly filleted to reveal their innermost selves, then posed jauntily for exhibit. I heard that people loved it. Ugh. Some were even inspired to donate their own bodies. Lunatic.
As it happened, the media invitation to view Body Worlds 3 arrived at a vulnerable moment. I was reading Mary Roach's delightful book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. Despite the light touch that Ms. Roach applies to the sad facts of mortal decay, none of the options she outlines sounded appealing as a way to spend eternity. Cremains, mortuary customer, med school dissection subject, crash-test dummy, organ donor: The dead may contribute to the living, but life is not kind to the dead. By the time I got to the section about long-ago experiments that involved transplanting entire human heads, polymer was sounding good.
Sure enough, that's what Body Worlds is all about. (Body Worlds 2 is currently on exhibit at the Maryland Science Center.) The cadavers, (relatively) whole or in parts, are fascinating, sometimes beautiful and inspiring, and remarkably low in ick factor. They could be plastic or ceramic; when you see them, you have to keep reminding yourself that they're dead people, and then you get to pat yourself on the back for how well you're taking this. A practically skinless man is leaping over a hurdle; his aerodynamically sliced brain seems like overkill. There's no apparent educational reason for this. It is, I deduce, Art.
Likewise the giant posters of loving people (the theme of the exhibit is ostensibly the heart), inscribed with quotes from Kahlil Gibran. What do these have to do with agate-like slices of brain revealing a stroke? Or the nerves, in a display case all by themselves and understandably looking a little frayed? Let's stop the pretense to poetic thinking. This is a curiosity, an informative bit of voyeurism, and that's good enough for me.
There's an archer and figure skaters, a flamenco dancer and a torch carrier, their athletically graceful poses (and paucity of skin) showing off their lean muscles, the interplay of bone and tendon and ligament. Of course, anyone's abs would look ripped if they weren't hiding under a pad of fat. And with a couple of notable exceptions, fat was banished. Finally.
Maybe that's why we're not put off by these cadavers. In a way, they're just one step beyond familiar celebrity anorexics, all sinew and bone, holding their extreme positions forever. Everything is firm and dry, sanitary and spectacular. Even the guts hold their shape. There's nothing slippery or wet or saggy, none of the messy stuff of real life - or death.
It's easy to imagine myself as one of these figures, trimmed down to my tidiest, most elemental self. The possibilities are almost endless. I could leap hurdles too, or do a handstand on a balance beam, feats beyond me in life. In death, I could be a ballerina posed on one fleshless toe, my latissimi dorsi partly severed from my back and raised like butterfly wings.
Here's the rub. Every body wants to be a gymnast or athlete, but in death, just as in life, few are called. For each full-length "star" cadaver at Body Worlds, many more donors appear as mere tidbits of their former selves, and sometimes in a less-than-flattering light. A case full of lungs, one pair black from a life of cigarettes, has become a shrine to quitting the habit; smokers, as they pass this part of the exhibit, often leave behind their packs of cigarettes. There are slices of feet, and cirrhotic livers.
Transformation by Body Worlds would, I imagine, be like looking into a mirror of truth. We all like to think we'd be naturals for a brainy chess player or lithe soccer player, the ones that would awe museum-goers, but if you give yourself over to polymer, prepare to be seen as you really are - or just a fraction of it. Let's face it, the plasticizing technicians are not going to look at me and see a ballerina anywhere in my past or future. I might as well live.
And then I see the fat. Actually, it's two longitudinal slices, in profile, of a person who weighed about 300 pounds, and the whitish fat is everywhere. The backs of the calves. Filling the hanging pouch of belly flab. All through the internal organs. Slabs and slabs of the stuff, carried through life and, for this one Body Worlder, into death.
Like the cigarette smokers, I want to leave behind a symbolic Mounds bar, but I haven't got one. In fact, it's way past lunchtime. I go down to the museum cafeteria, walk past the pizza line without so much as a glance and purchase a cup of soup.
Karin Klein is an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times, where this article first appeared.