Art and science have always lived in comfortably close quarters, especially when it comes to the human body. One need only study the precise musculature of Greek statues or the intricate anatomical drawings of the Renaissance to realize that the quest to comprehend the body's inner workings reflects the desire to understand life itself.
How does the body work? How does the mind function? What gives every human an essence?
A recently opened exhibition in La Jolla attempts to answer some of those questions with an approach that, like its predecessors, melds art, science and sheer entertainment. Bodies... The Exhibition, which took up residence last month in the former Robinsons-May building at UTC, is a three-dimensional look at anatomy with the tasteful and visually pleasing presentation of a major art exhibit.
The bodies referred to in the title are just that: real human bodies. Using a technology called polymer preservation, which permanently preserves human tissue with liquid silicone rubber, dissected full-body and organ specimens can be presented in revolutionary new ways.
Bodies is one of a few spin-offs of an international traveling exhibition, Body Worlds, which was created more than a decade ago by a German anatomist who invented the technique called plastination. In terms of content, the exhibitions are very similar, but Bodies has been trailed by controversy.
According to Body Worlds, every single specimen comes from a willing donor. In contrast, the specimens used in Bodies are leased from a laboratory in China, where unclaimed bodies are used for medical research-including the bodies of prisoners. Given China's poor human-rights record, this has enraged some activists.
Dr. Roy Glover, the chief medical advisor for Bodies, points out that unclaimed bodies are also used for science in the United States and insists that every step has been taken to ensure that all of the specimens died of natural causes.
'It's entirely appropriate for people to ask about the provenance,' he says. 'People want to know because it's an important component of what we do: Where do [the bodies] come from? How were they prepared? Most people understand that we've given truthful answers, and they move on.'
And then there's this prickly question: Why on earth is the exhibition at a mall? Displaying dead bodies where shoppers once roamed seems cause for squeamishness. Glover says it's at UTC because the empty department store was the largest space the exhibition could procure-25,000 square feet in all-and the most accessible in terms of location and parking. In other cities, Bodies has been displayed at science museums.
Glover claims that while there is certainly an entertainment factor to Bodies, it's really all about the science. The quality of the exhibition backs that up.
Bodies is divided into several galleries, which include thorough examinations of the skeletal, muscular, nervous, respiratory, digestive, urinary, reproductive, endocrine and circulatory systems. Detailed-but not overly scientific-text accompanies each display, and enlarged artist's renderings of microscopic specimens are projected on the walls.
Some of the displays are morbidly fascinating. A central nervous system specimen looks like bleached jerky splayed out on a table and attached to a head and popping eyeballs-it's very Beetlejuice. In the last gallery, an intact, head-to-toe human skin looks like something a giant limbed snake left behind.
Others-particularly the full body specimens-are unsettling. It's hard to believe these bodies, dissected to reveal different systems at work, were once living, breathing human beings. The natural reaction is a mix of compassion and curiosity. It's fascinating to look at a young man's body in an athletic pose, sliced open to show how the muscles function. But it also is an acute reminder of mortality.
Ditto for the reproductive gallery. In a secluded space, which warns viewers at the entrance of the sensitive displays ahead, fetuses in various stages of development-all of which died of natural causes-line the room. These tiny creatures, even at just a few weeks, are all too human. It can definitely rattle one's beliefs to see the extent of development so up close and personal.
Still, other displays are downright beautiful. The circulatory room draws a gasp of awe with its magnificent specimens. A technique called corrosion casting allows scientists to fill even the tiniest vessels with a colored polymer dye. Capillaries, veins and arteries glow blue and red in the darkened room, and in form resemble a twisted tree or a coral reef.
If there were ever a doubt that the human body is nature's most extraordinary work of art, this exhibition settles it for good.
Bodies... The Exhibition will be on view at UTC Mall, 4425 La Jolla Village Drive, through Sept. 10.
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