Modern philosophers just wet themselves. As the Wellcome Collection pulled back the curtain on its enticing world of bionic limbs and ultimate cosmetic surgery, Superhuman, the people who spend their time thinking and writing about the ethics of science and technology surely got really excited.
The exhibition explores ideas and raises questions, but the experience it provides feels somewhat detached. It is no surprise that five of the six people listed as contributors in the exhibition guide are professional worriers – ethicists and philosophers whose job is to keep their distance and coldly analyse the way we live. Despite the very welcome inclusion at the centre of Superhuman of some brilliant works of art, the exhibition never grabbed me by the balls in the way that it could have done. It should have said, “Would you like actual balls of steel?”
Superhuman could have tested me, given me some sort of glove to wear that augmented my hand’s function or plugged me into a computer simulation or made me realise how much our perceptions of ‘enhancement’ has changed throughout history. For example, what did we make of early spectacle wearers?
Instead, the exhibition presents lots of the kinds of curiosities Wellcome is famous for: ceramic penises, early false teeth and thalidomide victim prostheses. Alongside these are artworks, such as Regina José Galindo’s Recorte Por La Línea, a video in which a plastic surgeon inks lines on the artist’s nude body to indicate where he would nip, tuck, suck in, smooth out. The surgeon’s pen lines describe our obsession with the so-called ideal body image and the final result – an imaginary female ideal drawn over the skin of a natural woman. The jaunty lithograph El Hombre Como Palacio Industrial by Fritz Kahn is reminiscent of biology textbook diagrams that convert human bodily functions into cogs, pulleys and pistons for the sake of explanation. Kahn’s lithograph is another excellent artwork in this exhibition.
While the connections between the real medical and technological devices and the artists’ extrapolations are clear, they never spill over into excitement. There is an attempt: a wishful timeline presented on the final wall of the exhibition, which is written by transhumanists with no apparent appreciation for the fact that capitalism will not deliver a global techno-utopia, or if it does it will be restricted to the global north.
Other than when reading this timeline, it’s hard to grapple with these ethical issues so cleverly laid out. The text panels raise lots of questions, but there’s nothing to make the visitor think hard about how far they would enhance themselves, and what about themselves they consider to be enhanced already, and how they might enhance their children.
The Alchemy reader’s most potentially exciting exhibition space claims that “Superhuman takes a broad and playful look at our obsession with being the best we can be”. But Superhuman itself is not the best it can be. The exhibition could do with a dose of steroids and some brain enhancement.
Superhuman is free and runs until October 16.