The brains behind the Paralympics super humans

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

A new exhibition inspired by the Paralympics examines the eternal quest to improve the human body, says Adrian Hamilton

If there were one startling and apt image of today's Olympics it wouldn't be the five rings, let alone the uninspired logo for 2012.

It would be the clean, sprung lines of the carbon-fibre blades used by amputees to run in the Paralympics and, now, in the conventional Olympics – a device entirely human in use and totally functional in form.

The Wellcome Foundation has one, a "Flex-foot Cheetah", made by Össur, in the middle of its new exhibition "Superhuman: Exploring Human Enhancement from 600BCE to 2050". It should have put it at the centre.

Timed to coincide with the Olympics, the exhibition might well have concentrated simply on man's efforts to increase his athletic performance. Instead, it has taken its cue from the Paralympics to explore more generally the search to replace the deficient and increase the prowess of our mortal being.

It's a fascinating theme not just for its mechanics but its ethics. At the beginning, the efforts of medicine and craft were bent on replacing lost parts. The earliest object displayed is an artificial toe that was buried with an Egyptian mummy and turned out, on examination, to be not symbolic but a false digit actually used and demonstrably workable. Artificial legs, false eyes, spectacles and porcelain dentures soon follow as the search for the functional expanded to the improvement of appearance. Breast enhancement takes its place, woollen knit as well as silicone implant, along with the "Waterloo teeth" taken from the dead (we hope) on the battlefield.

Sex, too, rears its frolicsome head with a charming little 19th-century Indian gouache of "a Woman using a dildo in the form of a root vegetable suspended from the branch of a tree" and an 18th-century "Ivory dildo in the form of an erect penis, complete with contrivance for simulating ejaculation" of a size that would have done credit to a Siberian mammoth, never mind a mere human.

Rather touchingly we are told that a silver false nose made for a syphilitic woman was later returned when she married and found her husband preferred her without it.

Contemporary artists take all of this with a certain wryness. There's an entrancing video by Regina Jose Galindo, Recorte por la Linea (Cut Through the Line), filmed in Venezuela, which apparently has the highest rate of aesthetic procedures per capita in the world. In it, the artist has her body marked up by a surgeon detailing just where and how each curve can be improved. The German artist Rebecca Horn goes in the other direction with a series of contraptions to enhance the reach of head and hand.

The men are no less subject to the idea of the perfect physique, of course, with the Atlas courses in body building, taken on a few steps by the female bodybuilder and video artist, Francesca Steele. Superhero comics make the muscular magnificent as well as menacing. Matthew Barney, the American filmmaker, directed a whole series of "Cremaster" stories around the figure of the double amputee model and Paralympian, Aimee Mullins, taking various half-animal, half-machine roles.

It's not all vanity and competitiveness. Lest we take prosthetics too light-heartedly, the curators also include a moving section on thalidomide children, when the company and the state attempted to make up for the appalling malformation of thalidomide births by providing expensive and cumbersome false limbs to make the children more normal, only to find that, less interested in appearance than mobility, they preferred electric wheelchairs or using their feet to feed themselves.

Any human intervention raises questions of what is permissible and what is not. The exhibition begins, as it ought, with the figure of Icarus, the youth who was given wax-worked wings and soared too close to the sun and crashed to earth. Man must strive but also accept his limitations. The Olympic Games, as the show records, started without any ban on enhancement drugs and saw several disastrous collapses of the overstrained runners. The Tour de France, a test of endurance as much as skill, was rife with drugs, with a string of deaths resulting (one fatal collapse is captured on camera and exhibited in the show).

There are those who argue that technology and drugs are actually egalitarian. Available to all they will iron out disparities in physique and give everyone a chance, just as there are those that argue "blades" give the amputee unfair advantages over those with conventional limbs.

Wellcome wrestles with these questions as it presents a contemporary world in which technology, biology and medicine are all melding into each other. The "i-limb" displayed has independently driven fingers operated by electrical impulses controlled by muscle contractions. So effective is it that some have chosen to have their hand amputated rather than labouring with a half-way house. Implanted chips can remotely control machines. Revital Cohen has erected a machine, "The Immortal", in which life-support machines connect to each other in a display of how human organs can be replicated mechanically. And, if you want to think harder on the questions posed by this futuristic world, there are a series of talking heads discussing transhumanism and enhancement.

"The conversation with society has changed profoundly in this last decade," Mullins says. "It is no longer a conversation about augmentation, it's a conversation about potential. 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 disabled can now become the architects of their own identity."

Maybe. But then there's a nagging question, which the exhibition fails to ask, about who will control and disburse these costly products of man's endless drive towards self-enhancement. A conference of the US National Science Foundation written up on the last wall concludes with a prediction for 2025 that "robot and software agents will operate on principles compatible with human goals, awareness and personality". It would fly in the face of history if they did.

Superhuman, Wellcome Collection, London NW1 (020 7611 2222) to 16 October

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice