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The Wellcome Collection, a museum and library for the history of medicine, has just opened an exciting, provocative  new exhibit Superhuman: Exploring Human Enhancment from 600 BCE to 2050. As London hosts the 2012 Summer Olympics, this exhibit questions the limitations and achievements of the human body as it is altered by medicine and science.

The very first item we encounter is a 2nd c. CE statue of Icarus in flight. It is quite small, only five inches or so in height, and displayed in a glass case, all pretty standard museum fare, but a light projects an exaggerated large silhouette onto a nearby wall. Just as Icarus manipulated his body with his attached wings (and to tragic end), the curator has manipulated this object’s ‘body’ enhancing and augmenting it. It is just as important to consider the missing figure of Daedalus, the designer of the wings and the one who also flew into the sky, but survived. Icarus might be the tragic monster, but Daedalus is the tormented genius Dr. Frankenstein. Throughout the exhibit, we see patients, doctors, scientists, and the interactions–for good or ill– when a Daedulus designs a newer, better, bigger body part for an Icarus.

The first case concerns “Enhancement” and includes items that we use all the time and never question in relation to our humanity–eye glasses, roller skates, ole timey dildo (with squirting syringe mechanism), and iPhone. Because these items are optional and removable (more or less), they are only temporary appendages, yet they allow us to do things or do things better than we could without them (read the morning newspaper, move more quickly through a park, self-pleasure or penetrate someone, and having all sorts of apps and answers at our fingertips).

Another section focuses on plastic surgery/ breast augmentation (with some troubling antiquated breast enhancement procedures, breast implants, and hand-knitted breast replacements for those who have undergone a mastectomy). The highlight of this section is a short video “Recortepor la Linea (Cut Through the Line)” by performance artist Regina Jose Galindo. I watched the video in its entirety twice, as Galindo stands nude in the courtyard of a museum, surrounded by onlookers (many male) and in the background, we see Greco-Roman classical nudes. A plastic surgeon marks up Galindo’s body, until at the end of the video there are different colored circles and lines and arrows defacing her entire body. Galindo has a trim figure and it’s disheartening to watch the surgeon discover flaws that Galindo has probably never noticed and I’m sure her lover finds beautiful. He also circles her tattoos for removal, until her body loses any sense of individuality. Galindo has a small spider web tattoo on her lower back and by the end of the video, her whole body is series of web-like lines and circles.  The surgeon must view her with both the erotic male gaze as he contemplates the beauty of each body part, but he must also employ the cold, clinical gaze as he considers her body as a series of proportions. Likewise, the erotic touch (male hand on female ass) becomes the medical touch, as he objectively prods and pokes her buttock before drawing the small circles indicating liposuction. At the same time, the male cameramen (who sometimes come into view via the other camera) are also intently watching Galindo’s body and deciding where to point the camera and how close to zoom in or when to pull back. Galindo’s work here is brave as she surrenders all modesty, vanity, and autonomy to become a modern version of Pygmalion’s statue.

Because of the small size of the gallery, there are several sections that feel underdeveloped: “Superheroes” (only a handful of comics and a pretty simplistic mockumentary about a superhero reality show) and “Sporting Chances” (a few types of sneakers on display as well as photos of famous doping athletes. The looped video of tour de France cyclist in his last moments seems especially appalling).

I also really enjoyed Matthew Barney’s the Order from his Cremaster 3 cycle, but the films are so difficult and allegorical that having a few clips and stills doesn’t fully develop Barney’s works and the section devoted to “Cremaster” could be much  more poignant if instead dedicated to Aimee Mullins, Paralympian, model, and activist. Her crystal tentacled “Manowar” prosthetics (worn in the Cremaster films) are amazing to look at within their display case, but this also reduces Mullins, in some ways to those detachable appendages (in this case, ones that are purely aesthetic as she cannot walk in them). Mullins has said such smart and profound things about the “opportunity of adversity” that I think a section focused more on her—with her role(s) in Barney’s films as only one of her contributions to a larger discourse on (dis)abilities and prosthetics—would be more empowering  than only representing Mullins as Barney’s muse. While his films complicate and challenge heteronormativity and the self-contained male body (as evidenced by his film’s title), he is still a white, straight, able-bodied male whose depictions of Mullins focus on her otherness (as woman, as cripple, etc.) as threatening (she quickly changes from beauty queen to Imagethis cheetah in one scene of the Order). Why reduce this strong, smart, beautiful woman to only Barney’s highly stylized representation of woman as femme fatale/seductress/man-eater?

The section on “Thalidomide” is still heart wrenching to see. This is a troubling reminder of untested and deregulated medicine, as the cure for a relatively minor inconvenience (the mother’s morning sickness) had major consequences. Children were born with severely malformed, underdeveloped, and/or missing limbs and digits, and the prosthetic harnesses with full legs and arms were lined up to demonstrate this short-lived episode in the failure of medicine. Yet, in the films of several  “Thalidomide babies” we see the children adapting to their prosthetics, and some children forgoing them altogether and demonstrating their penmanship and painting skills using their toes, their ability to dress and undress themselves, and to do other daily tasks without the aid of artificial limbs.

The section on “Man and Machine” is even further developed and deftly blurs the lines between science and science fiction.  There are both images of recent cognizant robots and fully developed artificial limbs, as well as an old promo poster for Blade Runner.  The short film Metalosis Meligna” by Floris Kaayke imagines metal implants becoming parasitic until we slowly devolve into cyborg form.  Also in this section is the installation piece “The Immortal” by Revital Cohen. A heart/lung machine, dialysis, newborn incubator, mechanical ventilator, and intraoperative cell salvage machine are connected to one another and powered for one hour a day by generator to replicate most of the body’s major organ system functions. While many of us have used one of these machines at some point, the overall effect of the major body systems and functions being artificially reproduced en masse is really unsettling. This leads into the final section about the “Future of Human Enhancement” as scientists, doctors, and researchers project their beliefs for dates of possible future enchantments.

The entirety of the display is haunted by absent presences—by limbs missing and removed, by limbs without bodies, by the failures of medicine and science, and b y the potentially inhuman and inhumane in depicting such fraught concepts as high art. In the most haunting absence/presence a small square outlined on the floor tells viewers not to interfere with the wheelchair. There is no wheelchair in that spot, however, and as one walks through the exhibit, the autonomous wheelchair slowly moves past, stops, turns, occasionally gets stuck in a corner, and then moves around again. This piece “Psalms” by Donald Rodney is such an absent presence, a type of  ghost. The wheelchair, of course, is one of the tools or aids we most associate with disability and technological aid or supplement, but this wheelchair also has other (albeit rudimentary) animate and cognizant features. It “thinks” (as it decides when to move or stay, and in which directions); it “sees” and “feels” (as it moves around and must navigate space and the relation of its body within the space of the gallery); it “is.” Furthermore, Rodney died of sickle cell anemia in 1998 before completing this piece, so this animated, thinking, moving machine is reminder and remainder of Rodney, his set of wings, his Frankenstein’s monster. “Psalms” nicely captures the exhibit’s larger illuminating and demanding questions concerning the boundaries, limitations, and achievements of our bodies, physically, philosophically, and aesthetically.