Sometime last fall, Premier Exhibition, an entertainment company, rolled its trucks into the middle of downtown Seattle to unload crates containing the butchered remains of Chinese human beings, which they put on display in a for-profit venture that raised little community objection. "Bodies" has been here before. When it first appeared in the autumn of 2006, it encountered more vocal resistance: a lot of negative press and editorial-page opinion highlighting the dubious origins of these bodies. Activists forced an inquiry by the county Medical Examiner; and, the following year, a proposed state law banning this kind of exhibit didn't get out of committee. Now "Bodies" is on display for a return showing, through March 2010.
After a lot of thought, I finally decided to patronize the current exhibit. I didn't go to satisfy some prurient interest or to increase my knowledge of the human body. I went to pay my respects and bear witness to a massive crime against humanity. I paid a little over $20 for my ticket to the cashier, who cheerfully told me to "have a good time."
These cadavers are unclaimed bodies obtained by a Chinese rendering contractor from the Chinese police. In February 2008, ABC's "20/20" also found evidence of an illicit Chinese fresh corpse market where bodies are initially sold for a few hundred dollars. Before they died these Chinese people never gave their consent for their bodies to be desecrated. The "plastination" of corpses is the wretched process of submerging the body in a vat of acetone, peeling off the skin and then reconstituting a majority of bodily tissue with caulk. Afterwards, the body is carefully plucked apart and horrifically altered for display.
The lighting of the exhibit was excellent. Ethereal music, wafting continuously, made for a numbing palliative. The first corpse I saw was a male, posed as a tennis player. Chinese dissectors, the tennis player's countrymen, had exposed his brain on both sides by cleanly sawing through the skull and removing portions of it. They removed skin and muscle from the anterior torso, to expose the digestive organs and the heart, as well as most of the rest of his skin, except for that on his face, hands, and parts of his thighs and feet. Like all the "specimens," his human name was replaced with a serial number "L2006.211," which may signify the year his corpse was obtained, along with where he stood in the cue to be rendered.
Others were much the same. Tendon and artery, muscle and organ, peeled skull and opened thorax, genitals: all are readily visible. They are posed in entertaining postures: a female cadaver has an imposing "attitude" as she looks the viewer in the eye; one cadaver has its muscular system separated from its skeleton, with the two systems holding on to each other at the fingertips. The Chinese are known for their ancient and stringent beliefs surrounding the care of their dead. The body is not viewed; pictures are removed during the extensive mourning period. To those who have inculcated several millennia of spiritual belief concerning the soul and its living vessel's disposition, the tennis player's eternal exposure must be excruciating.
My fellow sojourners smiled and talked as they passed dead bodies. There were young people holding hands, older ones walking side-by-side, teens and preteens with their parents. One young man stood in front of the nude female cadaver and laughed at her. On the way out, as a meager gesture of my sorrow, I left a short-stemmed red rose I had carried in at the foot of the tennis player.
Other locales have had some success in curtailing or stopping this exhibit. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo forced Premier Exhibitions to both display a sign warning the public that not all the bodies on exhibit may have died of natural causes and that, in life, these people could have been political prisoners tortured and executed by the Chinese government; Premier also agreed to refund any New York patrons the ticket price for not being informed of the possible criminal origin of the displayed cadavers. Last year Hawaii joined California to ban the "Bodies" exhibit. Locally, a group of concerned citizens is urging Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes to employ current legislation to both close "Bodies" and keep it from returning.
If there is any good news in all of this, Premier Exhibitions has proven to be its own worst enemy. In 2008, its stock value had climbed to a high of $18. Its former CEO spent tremendous amounts of money to increase the number of exhibits. Still, in no way did he even reach the profit margin his investors were expecting. The stock value has dropped 95 percent. Negative publicity from protests and especially from an incisive "20/20" report have had a damning effect.
Though the exhibit has one more month, I am hoping like minded individuals will raise their voices to expedite the removal of this blight from our city. Join us in our nonviolent actions to make patrons understand they are witnessing a holocaust. Let Seattle City Council know it should join the other communities which have banned this crime against humanity.