DO WE REALLY want to know what we look like on the inside?
That's the question posed by "Dream Anatomy," an exhibition at the National Library of Medicine that touts as its subject matter not simply the human body, but "the artistic imagination." In other words, the liberty to visualize these vessels of flesh as we wish or fantasize them to be, not as they are. (See Fritz Kahn's 1926 representation of the digestive and respiratory system as a chemical plant staffed by industrious homunculi for an extreme example of this.)
Drawn principally from the library's collection of illustrated anatomical texts -- Andreas Vesalius's ground-breaking 1543 "On the Fabric of the Human Body" appears both in the flesh and in a touch-screen version you can digitally "thumb" through -- "Dream Anatomy" also includes a computer station featuring state-of-the-art computer images taken from something called the Visible Human Project, an NLM endeavor in which the cadavers of a 39-year-old male prisoner who had been executed and a 59-year-old woman who had died of cardiovascular disease were cryosectioned -- milled into thin, frozen wafers (think bologna slicer) and photographed at each millimeter of the way from the crowns of their heads to their toes.
Talk about gross anatomy.
Then there's Jussi Angesleva's "Body Scanner." Taking images from the Visible Human Project, the contemporary, Finnish-born artist has created a sort of interactive booth that seems to "scan" your own body as you stand inside it, translating your legs, arm, gut and other parts of your anatomy into a series of fat-bone-and-meat strata laid out on a screen in front of you. Before your very eyes, you become a pile of in-living-color pork cutlets.
Of course, it's the convict and the housewife you're looking at, not your own body. (You select "male" or "female" with the touch of a little button on the floor, and an electric eye measures your height, adjusting the sequence of images accordingly.) Still, what's remarkable is not how much it feels like looking inside yourself, but how much Angesleva's piece makes us realize that that's what we want to do.
The impulse to peel our skin back and take a peek, to understand how, as the song goes, the wrist bone's connected to the arm bone (and so forth), is a strong and an old one. It is also one characterized by paradox. After all, the source of the anatomist's curiosity is life itself, yet, ironically it is only the dead that can satisfy that curiosity.
Even as we peer into our own navels in a quest to discover what makes us tick, it is the face of death we confront. Anatomy stinks -- literally. But at least those of us who wander through this remarkable "Dream" of it don't have to be confronted with the pungent stench of rotting meat . . . or formaldehyde.
DREAM ANATOMY -- Through July 31 at the National Library of Medicine on the campus of the National Institutes of Health, 8600 Rockville Pike, Bethesda (Metro: Medical Center). 301-496-6308. www.nlm.nih.gov/dreamanatomy. Open Mondays through Fridays 8:30 to 5 (Thursdays to 9); Saturdays 8:30 to 12:30. Free.
Images from the Visible Human Project can be viewed at anatquest.nlm.nih.gov.