Superhuman – but for whom?

11 October 2012
 Recortepor la Linea (Cut Through the Line) Production stills from video performance. Regina José Galindo, 2005

Recortepor la Linea (Cut Through the Line)
Production stills from video performance. Regina José Galindo, 2005

Earlier this year, students from the Young Journalists’ Academy Summer School, supported by a Wellcome Trust People Award, visited our Superhuman exhibition. Alice Kemp is a sixth-form student studying at LaSwap Sixth Form, Camden, and a graduate of the summer school. Here she reports on her visit.

As part of the Young Journalists’ Academy summer school, I attended an exhibition entitled Superhuman at the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road, London. In all honesty I went into this exhibition with low expectations. Not because I’m a cultural snob or because the calibre of the content was below me but because I generally just don’t get that kind of thing!

Exhibitions of all sorts have typically bored me – I wander around with a feigned look of intellectual interest, hoping others will believe I’m contemplating deeply the riveting subject matter. Rarely do I ever absorb or understand the points that the curator is trying to get across. This is probably the kind of ignorance that knowledgeable lovers of art and culture despise, and with my initial cynicism in mind I would like to highlight that I was pleasantly surprised! Not only did I understand the basic – and perhaps even the more intricate – principles of the exhibition, but I took a genuine interest in it and enjoyed browsing through the various displays and learning their stories.

Much of this enjoyment must be credited to our fantastic tour guide. If you’re reading this, thanks a bunch! Having someone knowledgeable on the topic to inform me of the background and meanings behind objects was definitely a benefit and allowed me to experience the exhibition on a level beyond merely gazing fixedly at inanimate objects, hoping that in a sudden moment of realisation understanding would descend on me.

What was fascinating about this exhibition was that it explored human enhancement not only in terms of more major ideas but also on a more personal level in the form of everyday objects such as glasses and Vivienne Westwood-designed high heels. Plastic surgery – a large-scale human enhancement – was successfully explored through Regina José Galindo’s short film Recorte por la Linea (Cut Through the Line). Galindo was shown having a plastic surgeon drawing on her all the augmentations he would make to her body… naked… in public. Aside from the evident shock factor here, the piece gave a disturbingly accurate insight into today’s culture of perfection. Galindo ends the video covered in lines and dots, conjuring up images of a Victorian paper doll and displaying the surgeon’s flawless ideal – a feat that would permanently dent the confidence of even the most radical feminist. I found this piece captivating and sickening concurrently as it shamelessly displayed the lengths many will go to in order to meet the standards that others have laid out for them.

The more minor forms of human enhancement also caused me and the group to question the motives behind our daily augmentations – are we editing ourselves for our betterment or for more superficial, aesthetic reasons? This idea was explored throughout the exhibition, everyday objects and potentially life-changing ones alike.

A display that particularly struck me was one exploring the drug thalidomide, which was introduced in the late 1950s. Thalidomide was a drug introduced to treat morning sickness and aid sleep among pregnant women. However, it had not been properly tested and caused birth defects among many of the babies whose mothers had used it. The British Government provided what were then cutting-edge prosthetic limbs – some displayed in the exhibition – as compensation for these children. However, the images and videos shown raised the question of whether these enhancements were intended to assist the individual and make movement easier, or to ‘normalise’ them.  In effect, were the limbs provided to help us or them? This was displayed poignantly in one video of Louise Mendes, whose prosthetic legs seemed like a device simply to help her ‘fit in’ as opposed to function properly as she struggled to walk with ease. Some of the videos running alongside this really evoked emotion in me as I witnessed the affect thalidomide had had on children barely out of their infancy.

I love that the Superhuman exhibition really triggered me to put more thought into the motivations behind human enhancement – the aforementioned high heels being another example. They may enhance our height and make us more attractive by today’s standards, but at the same time they disable our ability to walk efficiently. Are looks worth it?

Superhuman may indeed have been one of the only exhibitions I have ever valued, a radical comment to make but true nonetheless. I heartily encourage you all to attend this exhibition and approach it with an open mind – if an ignoramus like me can appreciate the moral queries raised, then I’m convinced anyone can.

Superhuman runs until 16 October.