"BODIES...the Exhibition" walks into controversial debut at Mall of America

Traveling gallery of corpses axed in Paris for disrespectfully displaying dead people for profit

At first glance, they don't look real. Seeing a skinned human body—steak-red musculature and adjoining tendons fully exposed, scrotum-less testicles hanging like distended marbles—it's tempting to think it must be a mannequin, or maybe one of those expensive models used in anatomy classes.

But it's not. He's not. He once lived, breathed, loved, and endured life's struggles just like you.

For four years, "BODIES...the Exhibition" has been wowing, educating, and disturbing exhibit-goers with its controversial collection of preserved human corpses. On Saturday, the exhibition opened its doors at its newest locale: the fourth floor of the Mall of America, in the space once occupied by America's Original Sports Bar.

"We thought it'd be a wonderful use of space," says Maureen Bausch, the mall's executive vice president of business development. "Every time you walk through, you learn something new about the human body."

You might discover that your capillaries are so numerous and fine that, from 10 paces away, your circulatory system resembles a giant tuft of red cotton candy. Or that, contrary to the tidy artistic renderings in medical books, your small intestine is pretty much indistinguishable from a pile of deflated balloons.

Needless to say, this is not a place anyone should frequent while under the influence of psilocybin.

The cadavers are preserved through a process called polymer preservation, whereby the 90 percent of the corpse that is water gets replaced by silicone polymer, which, after hardening, turns body tissue into a preserved rubber-like material.

Produced by Premiere Exhibitions, Inc., "BODIES" has elicited no shortage of outrage as it has journeyed around the world. In April, an exhibit in Paris was shut down after a French court ruled that displaying dead people for profit is a "violation of the respect owed to them." In pronouncing the ruling, Judge Louis-Marie Raingeard said that, "under the law, the proper place for corpses is in the cemetery."

The main dispute surrounding the exhibit, however, has to do with the source of the bodies. Premiere Inc. leases the cadavers—invariably Chinese men and women—from China-based Dalian Medical University Plastination Laboratories, under the terms of a $10 million deal. Problem is, no one knows exactly where the bodies originate. In 2008, New York Attorney General Mario Cuomo launched a probe into Premiere. After it was discovered that "BODIES" was unable to document the path of the cadavers, the company settled, agreeing to pay a $50,000 in escrow, in addition to refunding ticket-buyers disturbed by the bodies' potentially grisly origins.

"Premier Exhibitions has profited from displaying the remains of individuals who may have been tortured and executed in China," Cuomo said in a statement at the time.

Premiere denies the allegation, maintaining that the supplier has certified that all the bodies used in the exhibit died of natural causes. Nevertheless, "BODIES" officials admit that the rest of the corpses' stories remain a mystery.

"These are unclaimed and unidentified bodies," says the exhibit's chief medical director, Dr. Roy Glover, quickly adding that it's legal to use such cadavers for instructive purposes. "Our responsibility is to use them for educational purposes in the most respectable and dignified manner, and we take that responsibility very seriously."

Of course, if Cuomo's allegation is even remotely true, it amps up the weirdness of the place to near nightmarish levels—executed Chinese political dissidents, skinned like field-dressed deer, displayed atop America's largest monument to consumerism.

But at the media unveiling last Thursday, no one seemed at all frazzled by these Kafkaesque overtones. The scene was made all the more surreal by the exhibit's location—literally 20 feet from a Hooters. To your right, hot wing-gorging men ogling nubile waitresses in orange hot pants; to your left, tourists peering into the right hemisphere of a cadaver's cranium.

Friendly PR flaks greeted the occasional reporter and photographer and beckoned them through the exhibit's nine galleries, the word "educational" clearly among their emphasized talking points.

First comes the Skeletal Gallery. Bones and skulls abound; typical museum fare. Things get more interesting in the next section, the Muscular Gallery. Here we find two gents standing atop stainless-steel pedestals and enclosed in glass. One is shooting a jump shot, a basketball resting in its skeletal hands. To the cadaver's right is his football-playing comrade. The skinless Heisman tucks a pigskin under the exposed muscles of his right arm.

There's something about their eyes....

"The eyes are the only part that are artificial," Glover explains later. "Otherwise they eventually become clouded and opaque, and are not pleasurable to look at."

At the Respiratory Gallery we arrive at three glass cases, the middle one housing two packs of menthol Marlboro Lights. The two adjacent cases contain lungs—one from a smoker, the other a nonsmoker. The nonsmoker's lung has a smooth, off-white surface. The smoker's lung is dark brown, almost black, and although it's impossible to touch, it appears to be hardened like charcoal. Smokers are encouraged to drop their cigarette packs into the middle bin. I don't have any on me.

Though not in the least bit gory, the most unforgettable specimen resides in the Nervous Gallery. Splayed inside a glass case is a nervous system. It once belonged to either a small adult or a large child. It consists of a brain with two protruding eyeballs (the only real ones in the exhibit) staring upward. Lacking eye sockets, they appear shocked, as if surprised to find themselves trapped in glass and being examined by strangers. A spinal cord, no thicker than a pinkie, tapers down from the brainstem. White tendrils extend from the cord, forming the rough outline of a human body.

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