The Body Electric

Sketch night at Body Worlds 3, the Saint Louis Science Center

So there they are, our amazing bodies, stripped of their skin and displayed beautifully for us, these vessels of organic intricacy and marvel, like three-dimensional versions of those laboriously etched illustrations by Vesalius.

Plastinates, they're called. Posing cadavers, some of them eternally captured in exhausting poses. Meanwhile, posing next to them, live models are doing their best to maintain the pose performed by the plastinates. All the while, artists work to capture the vision on paper. Occasionally, the model has to let her left arm hang loose and swing, an exercise meant to return the blood to her upraised limb. Not easy work. I hope these models are being paid well. But whoever came up with this sketch-night idea is a genius.

I remember that advanced anatomy class at Pratt and taking the A Train to Columbia to study cadavers with the med students. But those cadavers lay prostrate, and how inhuman they looked — their muscles sinewy and dried out like stringy jerky, roasted pepper. Emaciated, deflated. Very little evidence of the lives they might've led. All very clinical. Then, too, the cadavers were accompanied by a model, a visual demonstration of how these parts performed among the living.

The models were always dancers because dancers are in touch with their bodies. Our professor had done a stretch in an asylum. Too many solitary nights spent in the company of corpses had finally crippled his nerves. After that, there was always a twitching about him. You could tell: Something had snapped. He struggled constantly to keep his mind from bending morose. Indeed. But that was in another life.

Now a spattering of artists sketch the model posing next to the cadaver while, from a television monitor, Yul Brenner calmly urges all of us, the entire human race, never to take up smoking. Just don't do it, he says. His voice mixes with calm music coming from the sound system.

 
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