Wednesday, 5 September 2012


The Wellcome Collection describes itself as 'a free destination for the incurably curious' which makes it pretty much exactly my kind of place. Part of the Wellcome Trust (eponymous charitable arm of the pharmaceutical giant) the venue is designed to encourage visitors to explore the connections between life, medicine and art. Having really enjoyed last year's excellent exhibition Dirt - a whole lot more interesting than it sounds, trust me on this - I was very much looking forward to the current one, Superhuman.

The subject couldn't be more topical. South African Olympic and Paralympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius is currently making headlines following his shock defeat in the T44 200m final to Brazilian runner Oliveira and immediate public complaint about the 'unfair' length of his rival's blades. He later apologised for the timing, but not the content, of his outburst. Pistorius's point was that the longer blade results in a longer stride: ironically his own chosen blades are shorter to comply with the IAAF regulations that allow him to run in both Olympic and Paralympic events - Oliveira's blades are only legal in the Paralympics.

In a recent interview with the Guardian, Ben Rushgrove (who has cerebral palsy and runs in the T36 100m and 200m) points out the potential advantages that all 'Blade Runners' have over other athletes: 'the blade runners don't have feet so they don't suffer tendonitis or stress fractures. It also means they can train longer and harder than their counterparts. Coaches also say that the blades reduce body fatigue . . . For these reasons it was wrong in my opinion that Oscar was allowed to take part in the Olympics.'

This concept, that a double amputee with prostheses may actually have an advantage over those we traditionally consider 'able-bodied', is central to the Wellcome exhibition. Aimee Mullins, herself a double amputee and Paralympian as well as a model, motivational speaker and now actress, is quoted as saying, 'A prosthetic limb does not represent the need to replace loss anymore. It can stand as a symbol that the wearer has the power to create whatever it is that they want to create in that space, so that people society once considered to be disabled can now become the architects of their own identities.' 

Mankind has always sought enhancement to improve actual or perceived limitations; few would quibble with the use of a pacemaker or hearing aid, even contact lenses or lipgloss, but how far is too far? The first exhibit is a silhouetted figure of Icarus in flight, mythological poster boy for the downside of pushing the boundaries, whilst in Recorte por la Linea (Cut Through the Line) the artist is filmed standing naked whilst a plastic surgeon marks her body with a multitude of incision lines for potential 'improvements'.
Some items are equally controversial but altogether more bizarre and amusing (to me at least); the wonderfully-named Whizzinator, a strap-on prosthetic penis complete with dried urine sachets, originally designed to cheat drug tests but now marketed as a 'lifestyle choice' accessory, or a nineteenth-century pair of spectacles complete with silver nose made for a woman who lost hers to syphilis. An accompanying colour booklet, available for a £1 donation, covers the main points of each section of the exhibition and also contains transcripts of the Voices videos - experts in their fields talking about enhancements in sport, lifespan, even moral capacity.

If your curiosity is still unslaked the Wellcome Collection also boasts two permanent collections and an extensive library. Book into one of their free guided tours, take home some bedtime reading from the specialist Blackwell bookshop or just chill out with top notch tea and cake courtesy of the Peyton & Byrne on site café. Food for thought indeed.

Yours, incurably curiously,
Girl About Town xx

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