Superhuman at the Wellcome Trust gallery in London, looks at the history of humanity’s desire to be more than human. But John O’Donoghue came away uneasy about the whole idea.
How do you feel about being disabled? Do you like the word? How about impairment? How would you feel if there was no distinction between disabled people and everybody else? How would you feel if instead of having impairments disabled people had enhancements? Do you think this would change the way you are seen by the press, politicians, the general public?
These are some of the questions that went through my mind as I went round the Superhuman exhibition at the Wellcome Trust.
Drawing on a wide range of exhibits, from a figure of Icarus from antiquity to smartphones, microchips, and robots Superhuman comes at an extremely sensitive moment for disabled people in this country.
For do the dreams of science and medicine mean that 'disability' as a concept and as a reality can be eradicated? That disabled people, a part of humanity as long as there's been humanity, will themselves be eradicated?
Take the 'thalidomide disaster', as Emily Sargent, curator of the exhibition, describes the wonder drug prescribed for morning sickness from the late 50s and early 60s and its aftermath. At first government and the medical profession tried a technological approach to this 'disaster', producing artificial arms and legs for children affected by the drug. But many of them preferred adaptation, learning – for instance – to drink cups of tea with their toes.
You could say they voted with their feet.
You could say that the 'disaster' wasn't their 'impairment' but the medical profession's blind faith in the drug in the first place and the reluctance of companies such as Distiller's to accept responsibility.
But hold on! you might say. Surely spectacles, hearing aids, dentures have improved the quality of life for millions? I wouldn't disagree with you - but spectacle wearers like Tony Blair are never labelled 'disabled'.
To call an exhibition 'Superhuman' is to invoke echoes of 'Ubermensch' and of course its sinister flipside - 'Untermensch': 'Subhuman'.
And so by the time I came to the most striking exhibit in the rather dim and chilly confines of the Wellcome, a short film called Metalosis Maligna by Floris Kaayk, my antennae were twitching. This brilliant piece is the one cautionary tale in the whole five-and-dime. According to this short mockumentary, Metalosis Maligna occurs when a metal implant such as a pin in your leg or a plate in your skull starts to mutate, causing the metal to grow weird-looking tendrils that eventually puncture the skin from within and destroy it.
The film shows the development of the disease from its beginning to its advanced stages, when entire sections of flesh have fallen away and all that is left is a skeleton of scrap metal. Interviews with ‘hospital personnel’, together with a spooky, serious soundtrack, make for a convincing testimony of a devastating disease.
Why was I so impressed by this short film? First - the visual imagery. To see a man with half his head eaten away by screws, bolts, and pieces of Meccano is extremely striking. Second - the satirical bite of the piece. Here is one 'enhancemant’ that definitely becomes an 'impairment', just like Thalidomide. Third - here is a film that doesn't take itself half as seriously as the other exhibits. It would have been good to have more sound as the film played – but the images, as I say, were extremely striking: disturbing and funny at the same time.
The thought of disability being as outmoded as the Penny Farthing fills me with disquiet. Since I was diagnosed with Bipolar Type II aged 17 I have been aware of the hostility directed towards those who are different. It seems to have reached a crescendo at the moment.
A century ago Eugenics offered scientifically proven answers to the question of humanity's future. I would be horrified if 'Enhancement' meant that me and my kind were to go the way of the Dodo.
Superhuman? From where I stand, stimulating as the exhibition was, it's just another word for Inhuman.
Superhuman continues until 16 October. Go to the Wellcome Trust website at www.wellcomecollection.org for more details
Metalosis Maligna by Floris Kaayk is also showing as part of Niet Normaal at DaDaFest in Liverpool until 3 September.