From Icarus to i-Limbs, Wellcome Collection’s major summer exhibition, ‘Superhuman’, explores the extraordinary ways people have sought to improve, adapt and enhance their body’s performance. Coinciding with the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games, ‘Superhuman’ brings together more than 100 artworks, artefacts, videos, photographs, comics and medical objects that record our seemingly limitless desire to be more than ourselves.
From an ancient Egyptian prosthetic toe to the superheroes of sci-fi imagination and the futuristic promises of technology, the exhibition takes a long view of enhancement and explores the science, myths and cultural reception of body extension. Opening with a playful look at what constitutes an enhancement, from glasses and false teeth to sex aids and iPhones, 'Superhuman' outlines the enormous range of devices with which we adapt our capacity and investigates the benefits and side-effects of their use.
Vivienne Westwood's vertiginous 'Super Elevated Gillie' shoes increase their wearer's height, but - as Naomi Campbell's catwalk spill famously demonstrated - make walking a challenge; an 1866 'Punch' illustration of roller skaters running amok speaks to a fear of new technical extensions gaining universal favour; contraceptive implants delay fertility, just as IVF techniques can extend it. We are all, to some extent, superhuman, but our sense of our enhanced selves varies dramatically.
The exhibition explores the long history of prosthetics, both as enabling devices and as covers for society's discomfort with missing body parts. Striking images and artefacts include a 19th-century silver nose for a woman disfigured by syphilis, prosthetic legs being parachuted into Afghanistan in Mohsen Makhmalbaf's film 'Kandahar' and James Gillingham's photographs of Victorian women displaying their artificial limbs but concealing their faces.
'Superhuman' is rich with artworks considering heightened bodily states. Rebecca Horn's delicately menacing appendages in 'Scratching both walls at once' (1974-5) examine the body's occupation of space, while video works by Charlotte Jarvis, Regina José Galindo and Floris Kaayk explore the cultural effects of cosmetic surgery on our psyches and the extremities of potential and actual physical intervention.
Fritz Khan's 1930s illustration of the body as a palace of industry sets up a familiar modernist model of the human as machine, but 'Superhuman' takes a wider view of the mechanised body, from Ambroise Paré's exquisite 16th-century engraving of a mechanical hand to the microchip inserted into the self-declared cyborg Professor Kevin Warwick.
Comics have long imagined the perils and salvations of super-enhanced human capability. The Invincible Iron Man, the Flash, X, the man with the X-ray eyes, the Savage She-Hulk, Deathlok the Demolisher, the Amazing Spider-Man and Dr Octopus are among the colourful parade of heroes and villains displayed saving and destroying the world in original editions from Marvel and DC Comics.
As Olympic dreams are made and broken in London, 'Superhuman' looks at the history of adaptations made in pursuit of athletic advantage. When Tom Hicks won the 1904 Olympic marathon, he collapsed on the line. The dangerous levels of strychnine found in his body were allowed under the rules of the time, whereas training was strictly limited to four weeks a year.
'Superhuman' considers the cultural and historical variances behind prohibition and the techniques of manipulating bodies for competitive benefit, from the rise of isotonic drinks to debates over blade legs and curious devices such as the Whizzinator, a false penis designed to dodge doping tests by delivering clean urine. The obsessive demands of sporting prowess are further explored through new works by artist and bodybuilder Francesca Steele.
Ethicists, scientists and philosophers are put into video debate about the future of human enhancement in the gallery space. Are desires for self-amendment so intrinsic we can consider bodily extensions as evolutionary progress? Or are these adaptations a denial of what makes us human?
Where do the lines between imagination and reality lie in a realm of science that carries the weight of public exhilaration and dread? In 'Superhuman', the exhibition itself is enhanced, with substantial space given over to live performance and events.
Emily Sargent, Curator of 'Superhuman', says: 'Human enhancement is one of the most exciting and feared areas of modern science, where sci-fi imaginings seemingly come alive. But it is not the exclusive preserve of the contemporary technologist, as our desire to enhance ourselves and our ingenuity to do so is in evidence throughout our history.'
Ken Arnold, Head of Public Programmes at Wellcome Collection says: "'Superhuman' treads a playful and eclectic path through our craving to be bigger, better, stronger and faster, and finds ever-shifting landscapes in our understanding of what it means to be enhanced. In typical Wellcome Collection fashion, the exhibition offers startling examples of human adaptability and makes us look afresh and with no small wonder at our own bodies."
'Superhuman' will run from 19 July to 16 October 2012 at Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, NW1 2BE.