Ban this freak show Norman Lebrecht
Ban this freak show
By Norman Lebrecht / April 11, 2006
A Chinese man stands erect and naked, holding an American basketball above his head. The man is dead, his intestines and blackened liver surgically exposed in the torso and preserved in shiny laminates for public viewing. His penis, its plumbing visible through a dissected shaft, dangles useless and inert.
This is Bodies ·The Exhibition, a show which promises Îto change the way you view yourself foreverâ. Opening tomorrow (April 13) at Earlâs Court, it disavows connections with Îany other organiser of human anatomy exhibitionsâ such as the ghoulish Gunter von Hagens,
Channel 4âs autopsy slicer, or your local Spearmint Rhino lap-dancing club. Bodies is brought to us by Premier Exhibitions of Atlanta, Georgia, a corporation concerned overwhelmingly with enlightenment.
Most people are under-educated about themselves, explains Premier's medical director Roy Glover, emeritus professor of anatomy at the University of Michgan. The best way to get people to look after their health is to show them actual body specimens.
Twenty-two bodies from China have been arranged in eye-catching ways: running, kicking a ball, throwing a discus, giving one another high fives. Professor Glover assures me that every body has been handled in a respectful and medically ethical way, before being put on show in a Îdignifiedâ setting. The corporation is running four parallel exhibitions in New York, Atlanta, Mexico City and Tampa, Florida. Some half a million people have passed through the turnstiles. Admission is £15. School parties are warmly welcomed. Professor Glover speaks with pedantic pride at the showâs success. My soul explodes with violent outrage.
Bodies, unless my moral compass has gone wildly off course, is the greatest affront to human dignity, the greatest insult to the dead and the rights of their loved ones, that we, in a voyeuristic culture, have ever seen. Donât get me wrong: I am no ivory-tower prude. I have admired the excesses of post-modern art, pickled sharks, scattered condoms and Robert Mapplethorpeâs photographs of men defecating. I have also worked in a hospital and wheeled our failures down to the morgue, where they were received casually by underpaid attendants. I am aware that the dead are not always treated in our society with the decorum they deserve.
The post-mortems of Von Hagen, of which some at Channel 4 are deeply ashamed, marked an extraordinary evolutionary regression a return to the gawkers at public hangings, the tricoteuses at the foot of the guillotine, who sought to experience a surrogate chill of death. There was no redemptive excuse for defiling the dead.
Bodies, though, goes beyond all previous shattered taboos. It is Burke and Hare meets Barnum and Bailey, a snatching and dishonouring of cadavers for no more elevated useful purpose than prurience, perversity and profit. The corpses come from Communist China. Professor Glover assures me that they were obtained through proper legal processes. I ask if he can be sure that they were not the bodies of political prisoners. He is absolutely sure, hand on heart. How does he know? The Chinese government told him so.
He maintains that the bodies were freely donated to Chinese universities for research, just as they might have been at his faculty in Michigan. But had the donors given their consent for the bodies to be contorted in a commercial exhibition, depicted as players in American sports for the profit of a corporation based in the Coca-cola capital? The professor falls strangely silent. I ask if he would donate his parentâs bodies for display in such a way. ÎThat would be up to them to decide,â he says tightly. Indeed.
There is no moral ambivalence to this show. It is utterly and irredeemably wrong from conception to execution, lacking artistic justification or pedagogic utility. The argument that children will learn about their musculature from handling body arts is specious: they could learn just as much from a plastic model in the biology classroom. The suggestion that adults will stop smoking when they see a carbon-coloured Chinese lung is likewise preposterous. The main aim of this show, which is booked to run for six weeks, is to part fools from their money. All else is humbug and hypocrisy.
That said, its damage to the moral ecology will be considerable. Civilisations are measured by how they handle their dead. Ancient Egypt is known by its Mummies. In the Persian Empire, as we saw in last yearâs British Museum exhibition, people were reverently buried in tin baths. In the Bible, the patriarch Abraham bought a burial spot in the Cave of Machpelah as one of his founding acts of faith. Respect for the dead is one of the core tenets of belief in God.
I know young men and women, Moslems and Jews, who stop whatever they are doing when the phone rings and rush off to attend a dead stranger, tenderly washing the body and preparing it for burial. It is considered the supreme act of human mercy ö Îthe kindness of truthâ in Hebrew parlance. Respect for the dead is the basis of civil society. In the heat of war, enemies arrange regular exchanges of casualties so that people on each side can grieve over their biers and resume the life that remains.
We are rightly appalled when a Christian churchyard is violated in Pakistan or a Jewish cemetery in outer London, when the remains of the much-loved broadcaster Alistair Cooke are stolen from an American funeral parlour. The dead cannot fight back. It is our duty as a society to protect them from robbers and profiteers, from sensation seekers and spurious showmen. Beyond that, the security of our civilisation is at stake if we permit the display of corpses as an act of public entertainment.
We are trembling here on the very verge of barbarism. Bodies · The Exhibition demands to be shut down by public outcry.
Norman Lebrecht is a respected commentator on the Arts. Visit his home page.