Superman – Wellcome Collection

SuperhumanIt’s a brave new world at the Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition SuperHuman Exploring Human Enhancement From 600 BCE to 2050.

The show opens with a figurine of Icarus from the first to third century CE. In the Greek myth Icarus escapes the island of Crete using wings made by his father Daedalus. Despite being warned by his father, Icarus flies too close to the sun, which melts the wax of the wings causing him to crash and perish in the sea.

Icarus asks a question that resonates throughout Superhuman, which is; could a union with technology come to disastrous ends and ultimately lead to our downfall, or if harnessed properly could it help us fly into a utopian sunset?

The Wellcome Collection lays out an array of strange, beautiful and sometimes fantastical objects that celebrate a pro techno-human union; for example prosthetic limbs from 600 BCE to present day, sexual advancements such as Victorian dildos and Viagra, mesmerizing film footage of the making of a glass eye and drugs that make us stronger and more resilient to bodily exertion.

Artist’s work is also intelligently placed throughout the show like Rebecca Horn’s Scratching Both Walls at Once, in which the artist attaches spiderlike extensions to each finger and drags them against the walls either side of a room. The work can be read as the artist’s desire to extend the limits of her bodily experience, to live outside of her corporeal realm.

Wellcome Collection - Superhuman

Shown alongside objects of bodily advancement the work suggests that maybe the “normal” human body may not be the most complete. Technology may also hold the potential for carnal liberation. Why can we only have one synthetic leg if one of our own is missing, why not have an extra third leg, or as performance artist Stelarc (who is glaringly not included in the show), would have it –  an extra six legs and an extra arm and one more ear?

The question of human advancement through technology is gaining real ground in contemporary social theory and has found an interesting bedfellow in contemporary feminism. Donna Haraway’s 1991 essay –

‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’

– outlines metaphorical gender liberation through the cyborg that could be capable of –

destroying …  identities,categories, [and] relationships

For Haraway, the cyborg has the ability to create a level playing field that could match any male physical attribute and ultimately make gender redundant. These ideas seem more at home within the realms of science fiction, but if the Superhuman exhibition shows us anything it is that these ideas are imminent.

Interestingly it is this imminent feeling that provides much of our anxiety about technology.

Most people seem lost in a world of technology; questions arise like, what happens when it spins out of control?

There are some artists in the show who reflect this technophobia such as Charlotte Jarvis in her 2009 film I Need a Hero, in which a paralysed American soldier undergoes several extreme surgical operations chosen by the public, to make him a superhero. Operations include installing a device in his heart to keep it beating at a higher rate and having his arms and legs amputated and replaced with more powerful cyborg equivalents.

The work parodies an American reality program called The Swan, where women are given extreme makeovers including plastic surgery to make them ‘beautiful’ Like the women in The Swan the soldier’s operations are exploitative rather than liberating, the man is changed into a cyborg made for killing – made fitter, faster and stronger to be used again as an object of war.

Superhuman is a utopian view of technology. It shows us what humanity can do if we harmonise a marriage between technology and humankind, be it cyborg bodies or drug development for use in human enhancement. Although the catch as always is that if not used correctly to improve life, to brave the unknown depths of human experience then we may fly too high, go too near the sun only to loose control and as with Icarus, see it all go to waste and ruin.

Scratching Both Walls at Once, Rebecca Horn, 1974-75

-Oliver O’Keeffe

Superhuman is on at the Wellcome Trust until 16 October 2012.