Monday, January 15, 2007

On the Boundary Where Art and Science Meet

You have a body –- a stunningly complex and ingenious combination of systems -- but you take it for granted. While you walk around with your "consciousness" and your "free will," you are largely oblivious to most of the activity that is going on within you. While you are driving to work or deciding what to have for dinner, or arguing with your kids about their homework, the real activity that makes your existence possible stays mostly beneath your radar. The work your body is doing probably deserves more attention than you are giving it.

This weekend my daughter and I went to Miami to see “Bodies: the Exhibition” and we will never return to the level of obliviousness we formerly enjoyed.

Through an amazing process that starts where ordinary embalming leaves off, the team behind the exhibition has preserved and dissected and displayed twenty human cadavers and various components thereof, making it possible to see, for example, all the muscles standing next to all the bones. The circulatory system, the liver, the spleen, the reproductive system -– it’s all there to see, not a model, not a photograph, but the actual item.

We walked among the displays and toured our inner mechanisms. Other visitors were an inadvertent bonus. Here is a skeleton. Here are the muscles. Over there, a living person, with a skeleton inside, and muscles, walking. See how it works?

My daughter brought an art student’s perspective to the displays. Her comment for the guest book: “Never before have the internal workings of my own body seemed so particularly individual, and never would I have thought organs could seem so much like carefully planned sculptures. Like fine art, this exhibition borrows from life, and presents its observations in a surprising, original, and ingenious way, making reality shift into a shape you might never have imagined without artistic intervention.”

After methodically demonstrating how the human body works, a final section is devoted to what can go wrong: disease, misuse, deformity, injury.

One of the exhibits contrasts the sooty-black lungs of a smoker with the relatively undamaged organs of a non-smoker. Another shows the effects of emphysema while the accompanying audio discusses what it feels like when that disease deprives the victim of the ability to metabolize the oxygen he breathes into his lungs. A little further along in the exhibit hall, the visitor comes upon a large lucite box with a slot in the top. A sign says, “Deposit your cigarettes here and stop smoking today!” Inside the box, dozens of half-empty cigarette packages, along with messages and money: the box has become an altar where people sacrifice their smoking pleasure on behalf of a hope for a better future. This exhibition is powerful enough to have that kind of effect.