Sunday, April 26, 2009

The bodies exhibition in Athens: I went, I saw, I was left ambivalent

So, we went to the famous bodies exhibition, not without some moral qualms, but intending to be looking at the people just as much as the exhibits.

The obviously Asiatic bodies in the exhibition were impressive. Before we start, it should be noted that I am a curious bear and as such, I am aware that under the skin, there are a whole bunch of interesting tissues and organs. I was not there in the exhibition to be told that I have a liver and to wonder at the positioning of said organ. Anyone who has either butchered an animal or prepared an animal for the cooking process will not have been surprised at the large number of stringy tendons or the ubiquity of cartilage or indeed the branching nervous and circulatory systems. I have opened anatomy texts and I have seen butchered vertebrates, thank you very much. What was impressive was the painstaking work which has obviously gone into these exhibits.

The realisation that we humans are also animals and that we look like meat on the inside came to me many years ago. I was not shocked by this. It was, however, interesting to see where the good cuts are on a human cadaver (gluteus and thighs, if you are interested) and it was interesting to see just how indistinguishable a lump of gluteus meat would be from a nice slab of beef on the table. The reactions of the visitors ranged from shock to awkwardness of fathers with young adolescent girls in an exhibition where in every room there was a man with his penis out for all to see. I enjoyed the crowd, I enjoyed seeing that one lady had fainted - overwhelmed no doubt by the realisation that we are as much animals as we are "human".

I did not enjoy one aspect of the exhibition and this was the avoidance of one question. The exhibition covered the how and what and where and when really rather well and graphically - what was missing, of course, was the why... There was no talk about the bilateral symmetry of the body and what it means, there was no talk of the anterioposterior and dorsoventral axiality of the human form, and why these three axes might exist. There was no talk of evolution. In Darwin's bi-centennial year, when you show people that they are animals, vertebrates, made slightly imperfectly, why stop short of going the whole hog and telling them why? Our nervous system laid out on the table is not so different to that of a fish, our tetrapod skeleton is not so perfectly adapted to supporting our bi-pedal body as it could have been... and more obvious than anything else, the crazy positioning of and plumbing for our testes is so patently not designed from scratch and so loudly begging for an explanation in each room, but the testes cry out in vain.

This pandering to the north American audience for whom the literal interpretation of the bible is the only truth took much of the shine off the exhibition. The excision of evolution from the explanation of human anatomy leaves the exhibition more naked than the exhibition's chinamen who were missing their skins. This missed opportunity to teach truth to an audience which has just had its eyes opened to the fact that we are animals no different to the lamb we spitted last week is a great pity. No one preparing the kokoretsi last week could have missed the similarity between the chinaman's heart on display and the lamb's heart on his plate.

Was the visit worth €16 with a camera, video and mobile phone ban? Possibly, possibly not. Should I have gone given the ethical quandary behind the exhibition? Should I have given the €16 to people who have bought cadavers from prisons in countries with shitty human rights records? Perhaps not. But if I hadn’t gone, I would not be able to tell you that I found it incongruous to see that all these convicts had perfect lily-white teeth. Chinese prisons must have pretty good dental programmes for their death-row inmates. Especially when compared to the pedicures / manicures. So, yes, if I had wanted truths, perhaps I should have known that I would not find them at an exhibition where the organiser feels it would be too shocking to keep the original teeth.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting Stelios.
Thoughtful as ever.
Hope you're well.
James Morwood sends regards and wants to congratulate you on a recent happy event I think. Seeing him on 7th May. If you have an email address perhaps send it?