Saturday, April 09, 2005

Fresh Meat, or Your Brain's the Size of a Mango

Before I answer the question about the donut, let me explain the title of this post. Thursday night was the best of times and the worst of times. The Universe Within formed the basis of the best; the worst was distilling the experience into a post immediately afterward, hitting publish, and losing my Internet connection for a day. It's back, which is nice, but the post is gone to lost post heaven. I offer you this information less for martyrdom and more as an apology if my enthusiasm doesn't shine through. Not only do I hate to be asked the same question twice or told the same things repeatedly, I hate trying to duplicate something I've already written. I'm not enough of an optimist to believe it will be as good as or even better than the original, but for you, dear reader, I'll try anything, so here we go.

After work I turned down a dinner invite from Roro and Lala, instead heading down to the Nob Hill Masonic with Soyboy and Six to "explore the mysteries of the human anatomy in a fascinating new exhibit" called The Universe Within. In the same building in which I've seen and heard Ornette Coleman channel something completely otherworldly, they've got more than 200 plastinated organs and full bodies of formerly living Chinese men and women. I'm laughing as I write this because I know it sounds pretty bizarre, and I won't lie. It's more bizarre than you can probably even imagine.

Here's the thing. A guy by the name of Gunter von Hagens, invented plastination, a method of preservation that forgos the messiness and smelliness of formaldeyde, which is one of those substances the stench of which you never forget. In high school and college I dissected a fetal pig and a cancerous cat, and all I can remember is the smell. I even had to pith my own frog. What got to me most was the smell. Actually the pithing was nasty, but I've blocked that out. But in plastination, all the fat and body fluids—remember that we're more than half water—are sucked out and replaced with liquid plastic that hardens to create a "solid, durable anatomic specimen that will last indefinitely," according The Universe Within program flyer. This creepy von Hagen has had an exhibit touring now since 1998, called Body Worlds. You may have heard about it recently if not sooner than that because the Body Worlds exhibits have stirred some controversy with their inclusion of a pregnant woman and fetuses, one of which was recently roadside attraction with Ken and Suzy some years ago, i.e the little known museum of oddities called the National Museum of Health and Medicine, filled with jars of abnormal fetuses, the vacuum- sealed leg and basketball-sized testicle of a man with elephantitis, and the sawed torsos of a man and a woman, pubic hairs included. The cut lines revealed the flesh to be nothing more than fresh meat.

Thus, when confronted at The Universe Within with a skinless man holding a hanger on which hung his skin, it was kind of old hat to me even though I can’t watch horror films of any sort, and I abhor gore. To me he could have been holding a cured leather coat—an oddly human shaped leather coat, but fashion is often a mind-fuck and the belly button actually is a button. Seriously. It’s pretty bizarre.

One of the specimens that made the biggest impact on me was a man (if I remember correctly) who was spread out horizontally, and I do mean spread out. He’d been sliced into approximately 1 inch slices from head to toe, like a loaf of bread. The slices were positioned about an inch apart as if he’d been merely been stretched out. It was mind-boggling to view the human body in that way—to see everything within a slice so to speak.

Some of the other specimens rivaled anything one might see at the MoMA or Louvre. One display had the entire circulatory system sans bone, muscle, organs—just the blood vessels themselves, but intact in human shape. Incredible. And beautiful. Another specimen feature a man in the running position, with all of the major muscles flayed apart. He looked like a graceful superhero, which I think was one of the points of the show.

The body is heroic in all that it survives day and in and day out. We’re so delicate on the inside and yet so strong. To really see the bones of the feet and think about the way they carry most of us … or to see how small the gluteus muscles really are and thus know that EVERYBODY has a fat ass … or to see how small the heart and kidneys actually are and that even the brain is only the size of a mango. It was amazing and eye-opening. Wanting to protect their precious cargo, Six and Soyboy immediately resolved to bulk up. I felt differently; rather than wanting to bulk up, I just wanted to make sure that everything that’s in me stays healthy. It gave me an entirely different kind of respect for my body.

I also had a lot of respect for the people whom we viewed. The program didn’t offer much explanation regarding who they had been or how they had been selected for this show, but from a spiritual standpoint, I offered thanks to each and every one of them for allowing us to have such a personal look at them, and one that "normally only doctors and scientists are allowed to see first-hand."

From a curatorial standpoint I was a tad disappointed. The "pieces" were incredible, but I found myself wanting more information. Many, but not all of the pieces, were accompanied by a placard bearing a digital photograph of the specimen in question, on which various parts were labeled. But I wanted to know more, like had this man or woman been young or old when s/he died; what was the cause of death; and was what we were looking at considered healthy or normal? For instance, one specimen had clearly fractured a leg; the metal plate and screws made that quite evident, but then I wondered if anything else on him was "damaged." There was one case which contained a set of healthy lungs and the shriveled, blackend lungs of a smoker. I wanted more comparisons. In a few situations, the placards had information that was too technical. I don’t know if the information dearth was due to issues of translation since the exhibit originated in China, but Soyboy said that when he went to Body Worlds last year in L.A., more information was available, including short bios for some of the specimens. I also think that for $17, attendees should get more than a single piece of photocopied paper. I expected something more explanatory—a brochure basically. We all agreed the lighting wasn’t very good either.

These complaints are minor in the long run. As a final remark, I thought Six’s comment was pretty funny. All of the specimens were anatomically correct, prompting Six to look at one particularly small male appendage and say, "All that trouble in the world over something so small." Much ado about nothing. See, it's true—you can always rock the Shakespeare. And if you have the chance to see one of these exhibits, do. It's a trip.


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