Exhibition: Superhuman, Wellcome Collection, London, July 19 – October 16 2012
© Wellcome Collection
Its Olympic timing might make us dream of supplements, superfoods and the final straight towards an elusive British medal, but the Welcome’s big summer show on advancements and enhancements to the human body isn’t all sweat and glory.
Vivienne Westwood’s heel-hiking Super Elevated Gillie, in fact, is the height of style and a height increaser for fashion fans, as well as the cause of a tumbling faux pas for Naomi Campbell.
© TM Marvel
The early warnings, perhaps, were there in an 1866 Punch illustration, where roller skaters were shown as a threat to the planet, their new-found means of transport holding the potential to obsess humanity.
There can be little doubt of the impact prosthetics have had on mankind. A Mohsen Makhmalbaf film, Kandahar, shows legs being parachuted into Afghanistan, and James Gillingham’s studio photos portray Victorian women with artificial limbs but concealed faces.
The clumsy attempts to “normalise” children affected by thalidomide during the 20th century are grim, but Matthew Barney’s installation – the third in his Cremaster series – is a beautiful one, as model and athlete Aimee Mullins (a double amputee) enjoys “surreally envisaged superpowers”, her performance entailing a set of “man o’ war” tentacles which are displayed nearby.
In more than 100 artworks, there are body illustrations from the 1930s, photographs of projects to create humanoid robots, a fully automated wheelchair created by artist Donald Rodney, who has sickle cell anaemia, and a 16th century engraving of a mechanical hand connected to a microchip inserted into Kevin Warwick, a Professor who declared himself a cyborg.
© Science Museum, London
Comic book fans are in for a treat – the Savage She-Hulk, Deathlok the Demolisher, the Amazing Spider-Man and Dr Octopus are all making appearances in original editions from Marvel and DC Comics.
And there’s no getting away from the history of Olympic competition, with notable mentions surely in line for Nike’s early waffle sole trainers and a false penis designed to dodge doping tests.
Ultimately, it seems to suggest, our everyday objects might constitute attempts to edge ourselves closer to the superhuman, whether it’s through false teeth, sex aids or iPhones. No matter how staggering the feats achieved on the tracks of London’s stadiums might be this summer, the urge to enhance ourselves is one which will run and run.
- Open 10am-6pm (10pm Thursday, 11am-6pm Sunday, 12pm-6pm public holidays, closed Monday). Admission free.
© Courtesy The Advertising Archives
© Evening News / Solo Syndication
© The Ohio State University Archives
© Wellcome Library, London
© The Trustees of the British Museum
© Floris Kaayk