An afternoon in the Wellcome Collection: A Reflection on the ‘Being Human’ and ‘Play Well’ Exhibitions

Columnist Beata Gubacsi visits the new ‘Being Human’ and ‘Play Well’ exhibitions at the Wellcome Collection in London

I could not have spent the day before Psychtech 2019: Mental Health and Digital Technology conference any better than visiting the Wellcome Collection in London.

Being Human

Beata Gubacsi’s photo of Latai Taumoepeau’s portrait

The Polyphony has already reported on the opening of this new permanent exhibition in autumn 2019. Fiona Johnston interviewed curator Clare Barlow, talking art, accessibility and inclusivity. Reflecting on the exhibition, Anisha Gupta in her blog post noted: “The exhibition replaces the previous permanent display ‘Medicine Now’ which showcased the work of fifty artists reflecting on modern medicine and the human condition. Fast forward 12 years, ‘Being Human’ reveals how far medical science has come in that time, and how our beliefs and attitudes towards bodies, health, and disease continue to change.” Consequently, this piece is an addition to the already existing discussion, sharing a few insights from the perspective of popular culture and posthumanism.

The Wellcome Collection claims that the ‘Being Human’ exhibition “explores trust, identity and health in a changing world”, “featuring 50 artworks and objects, the gallery is divided into four sections: Genetics, Minds & Bodies, Infection, and Environmental Breakdown.” These four areas are drawing attention to the complexity of being human: the human appears at the intersections of different entanglements within and outside of the body, providing a glimpse quite literally to the inner workings of the human body as well as a planetary body. In this sense the exhibition represents a critical posthumanist approach: it interrogates normative and anthropocentric approaches to the notion of human. A critical posthumanist approach draws attention to biases and speculates the consequences of maintaining biases and the sustainability of systems built on these, hence it entails a predominantly future-oriented position.

The first area, ”Genetics”, with its focus on biohacking proved how our lives are becoming increasingly like science fiction.  The term, “biohacking”, is reminiscent of bio and cyberpunk narratives of the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, speculating the possibility of modifying the human body, enhancing its life span and abilities. While this do-it-yourself-biology emerged in the 1980s, it has recently gained considerable momentum: “biohacking kits” – one featured at the exhibition – are now affordable and widely available. Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s short film, T3511, “a post-genomic love story and experimental documentary” explores the intersections of biopolitics and art, genetic information as something deeply personal but also part of public domain.

Beata Gubacsi’s photo of Yinka Shonibare’s Climate Refugee

Its neighbouring area, “Minds and Bodies” continued the breakdown the integrity of the human and the idea(l) of singular and insular being. This is especially apparent in the juxtaposition of three artworks:

  • transparent, female anatomy dummy with light up organs,
  • Bob Flanagan’s presentation, the “Visible Man” from Kirby Dick’s documentary Sick!, in which he uses a similar male anatomy dummy to represent the effects of cystic fibrosis on his body,
  • and a portrait of artist Latai Taumoepeau, depicting her body overgrown with marine life, reflecting on “the effect of climate change on small island nations”, the entanglements of body, culture, history and sovereignty.

These art works, which simultaneously representing transparency and visibility, are situated so closely to each other that it is impossible to view one without having the other pieces in sight. Being human appears as an assemblage of organs with porous boundaries to the environment. In this re-imagined system health and illness appears as a fluid and performative.

Finally, “Environmental Breakdown” served, quite literally as a backdrop for the previous areas, framed as threat and aesthetics. Adam Chodzko’s photos of natural disasters represent the complex cognitive and emotional experience of climate anxiety. One of the highlights of this exhibition is undeniably Yinka Shonibare’s ‘Refugee Astronaut’, the embodiment of climate emergency. The life-sized sexless figure wearing a spacesuit of Dutch wax fabric, reminiscent of traditional Nigerian textiles, carrying hurriedly grabbed objects is a stranger to their own planet, and a futuristic artefact. Yinka Shonibare’s conversation with Gwendolyn Smith explores how the piece responds to capitalism and colonialism: “The refugee astronaut is the reverse of the colonial instinct of the astronaut – someone who is going out to conquer the world. What you have here is a nomadic astronaut just trying to find somewhere that’s still habitable. […] Essentially we’re all nomads anyway, but people stake claim on places, which is a very modern idea – there’s nothing natural about that.”

Play Well

Beata Gubacsi’s photo of #toylikeme

The Wellcome Collection’s ‘Play Well exhibition’, available till 8th March 2020, invites its visitors “to consider the impact of play on our lives”, exploring playing in every shape and form, from building blocks to video games. The exhibition begins with the ‘Nature/Nurture’ debate showing videos of animals playing with each other or with objects, followed by an exploration of different theories of play and children’s development, and complex history of pedagogy and school systems. This is accompanied by an “evolution” of toys, from drawing and simple paper shapes to building blocks to mobile gaming apps. Walking among these artefacts evokes a strong sense of nostalgia, and the realisation that playing and imagination is present in adulthood too as we continue to learn and solve problems later in life.

Beata Gubacsi’s photo of Rory (Wellcome RawMinds)

I particularly enjoyed the area called ‘Toys Like Us’, drawing attention to the importance of representation since toys embody contemporary cultural norms, shifts in society and how children learn and develop their worldview through imitation. One of the highlights of this exhibition was Rebecca Atkinson’s made over toys: Hulk with stoma bag and Barbie with vitiligo among other popular toys such as Lego. I also enjoyed the last interactive section of the exhibition, which is dedicated to the video games created by a group of young people aged 14-19 as part of Wellcome’s RawMinds initiative. I tried two featured games, both focusing on social anxiety and loneliness. ‘Connection’ is a narrative game where the player advances by choosing and clicking on highlighted words representing different actions. The game begins with the player coming home from school to play on the computer: some of the choices are playing online or turning the computer off, talking to fellow players or avoiding contact and so on. The other game, Rory, was expressing similar anxieties in a different format: in this platformer game the player has to find their virtual dog in a mall, avoiding people since their gaze raises anxiety in the player and makes completing the quest impossible.

In conclusion, the two exhibitions, while seemingly very different, are inherently intertwined. ‘Being Human’ explores human-non-human entanglements from microscopical to planetary level. And what could be more universal than play? Something that has the potential to connect humans and non-humans, and objects? ‘Being Human’ suggests that being human is ultimately about connecting and adapting, to change, while ‘Play Well’ rebels, challenges and proposes alternatives. Together, ultimately, they make us wonder how to imagine the future and how prepare for the inevitability of it.

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