Vivienne Westwood shoes, Olympic athletes and false teeth look Superhuman at Wellcome

By Ben Miller | 17 July 2012
An image of a pair of glasses suspended above a pair of teeth by thin white strings
© Wellcome Collection
Exhibition: Superhuman, Wellcome Collection, London, July 19 – October 16 2012

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.

An image of the front of a comic book showing a green female she-hulk superhuman
Marvel Comics Group, The She-Hulk Lives (1980)© TM Marvel
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.

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.

A photo of a pair of artificial legs with red shoes, white socks and pink limbs
Lower limb prostheses, Roehampton, England (1966)© Science Museum, London
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.

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.

More pictures:

A photo of an athelete during the 1980s posing with a soft drink can for an advert
Daley Can, Lucozade poster with athlete Daley Thompson© Courtesy The Advertising Archives
A photo of the front of a newspaper showing the world's first test-tube baby
Superbabe: meet Louise, the world's first test-tube arrival (1978)© Evening News / Solo Syndication
A black and white photo of an athlete leaping into the air while competing decades ago
Jesse Owens competing at the 1936 Olympics
© The Ohio State University Archives
A photo of black and white photos of four women with their eyes covered by black squares
Frontal correction of a complicated saddle nose (1931)
© Wellcome Library, London
A photo of a stone sculpture of a mythical male figure with wings against a black background
Icarus (1st-3rd century). Bronze© The Trustees of the British Museum
A photo of a male figure on a hispital bed with bits of metal replacing bits of his body
Still from Metalosis Maligna, directed by Floris Kaayk (2006)© Floris Kaayk
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