Superhuman – Wellcome Collection

October 11, 2012

 

Superhuman – Wellcome Collection.

Yesterday I visited The Welcome museum’s exhibition ‘Superhuman’ which is on until the 16th October 2012. I always enjoy the integrity of the museum’s exhibitions and this one also did not fail to please on this count. This is a thought-provoking exhibition and it certainly gave me pause for thought.

I came away feeling that I had seen an exhibition about being human, feeling human, and something of what it means to be human. In its showing of our history of prosthetics and enhancements, we see how we have always strived for physical and mental improvement through the use of tools. Whether this be an Egyptian big toe prosthesis, to Viagra and the future possibiliites of cognitive enhancement through the use of designer drugs. Though my preferred cognitive enhancers are my smartphone and caffeine!

What was also highlighted is the need of humans to impose such prosthetics on those deemed incomplete or in need of enhancing. Here we see the footage of children whose mothers had taken the drug thalidomide during their pregnancy, attempting to use the prosthetic devices made for them. What was powerfully shown was how disempowering such interventions could be for the subject of them. It showed our human fragilities and strengths not just by and through its subjects but by those who engaged with the subjects and attempted to improve their lives.

The exhibition begins fittingly, with a small sculptured figure of Icarus who flew too high with his wings of feathers and wax, where the sun then melted them and he fell to his death.

It seemed to highlight not only the human being’s prosthetic impulse, how we will always find and create the tools to enhance and augment our abilities. But that along with this impulse there is also a compulsion to push this to its or to our limits.  As Emily Sargent points out a key aspect of the human enhancement argument debate is ‘the question of not just what is possible but at what point we should stop.’

This point came back to me at various points of the exhibition, and none more poignantly than to read about and watch the film footage of Tom Simpson who died in the 1967 Tour de France from severe dehydration after cycling through his body’s human limitations on a mix of amphetamines, alcohol and a desire to win.  Here I watched a live Icarus of his time take himself to the extremes of human physical endurance and use enhancing substances  which ultimately led to his death.

I also could not help but be moved by Mosen Makhmalbaf’s film ‘Kandahar’, watching the men with amputated limbs chasing the prosthetic limbs being parachuted into Afghanistan. And the opening scenes of this short film where a husband is determined to bring back suitable legs for his wife, ones  which looked feminine and fit the shoes she  had worn on her wedding day.

In this entire exhibition, which was a good mix of art and science, the personal was virtually always at he the forefront. The implications of lacking something physically and how we may or may not need to compensate for this not only physically but emotionally too.

This was no more highlighted than by Revital Cohen’s installation entitled Immortal with its interconnected life-support machines, where the missing link was a human.

At a time when we are all enhanced (biochemically through vaccinations; cognitively through smartphones or even Google alone; physically through the sportswear that helps improve our performances), this exhibition is very timely, particularly since it opened with the Paralympics , where a small seed change happened in the (inter)national psyche in how we viewed those people with disabilities and even more abilities perform at the top of their game.

This was an exhibition that showed us work at the boundaries of science, the boundaries of being human. It also brought us to the art that explores the issues at these boundaries. Superhuman is there to show us all something of being and feeling human.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: