Being Human at the Wellcome Collection

September 23, 2019

Being Human, at the Wellcome Collection

Reviewed by Colette Sensier

The Wellcome Collection’s new permanent collection, Being Human, launched on 11th September with a youth-only after hours party. A week in, Canopy decided to mosey on down and investigate. Culturally, we’re used to the trope of shared humanity - typically used to justify and praise the way people live and work together. Being human – in other words, having an essential identity in common – is mythologised as a realisation which naturally leads to  co-operation and empathy. But Being Human, designed by social-good-focussed collective Assemble, instead makes this shared humanity feel fragile and dangerous. This is an exhibition designed to unsettle and disorient.

The exhibition is broken down into ‘Genetics,’ ‘Minds & Bodies,’ ‘Infection’ and ‘Environmental Breakdown’ – not perhaps the most expected breakdown of the elements of being human, and definitely not the sunniest. ‘Infection’ investigates the struggle to navigate human contact in arenas where it is both essential and dangerous - especially in the healthworker/ patient relationship. An altered artefact from 2015, Mary Beth Heffernan’s PPE Project, dominates the space with a healthworker’s beaming face digitally printed on the belly of a hazmat suit. Text accompanying the model explains the struggle of fighting Ebola while wearing suits which seem unambiguously terrifying to rural communities. Healthworkers like Heffernan took to drawing faces on the suits, demonstrating the trust as well as the danger in human-to-human connection. While other pieces celebrated human connection – in particular a collaborative embroidered image of ‘the perfect carer’ by child patients from Great Ormond Street – the ‘Environmental Breakdown’ area in particular suggested futures which both test and problematise our tendency to flock together.

Central to the area and to the exhibition is the latest figure in Yinka Shonibare’s Refugee Astronaut series. Its ambiguous title – a refugee setting out into space? an astronaut taking refuge on the ground? – accompanies clashing clues to the identity of a figure who feels, in this space, like a model of a future human. Faceless, wearing a padded head-to-toe ankara print garment, and carrying a large fishing net, stuffed with what looks like expensive luggage, the figure brings to mind the ongoing climate migration northwards, set to accelerate as global temperatures rise. We’re left to ponder this lone, towering figure’s relationship to other humans, and ways in which her/his/their identity is shifting in response to climate disaster. Beside the artwork, Superflex’s video of a slowly flooding McDonald’s, alongside Allie Wist’s potable water maker, vase and salad bowl crafted from cellophane suggest ways in which cultural signifiers will warp in the future.

Interactive scent is used in two artworks to revive worlds which are, in one way or another, lost to us. When rubbed, the blank panel in Resurrecting the Sublime releases the scent of an extinct Hawaiian hibiscus – but getting close enough to sniff is visually disorienting, as the white panel’s unexpected gradients prompt a kind of vertigo. Meanwhile, Tasha Marks’ bronze sculpture, 5318008 (yes, that’s BOOBIES upside down), emits the (instantly recognisable and comforting, even to a childless adult) smell of breastmilk. Elsewhere in the collection, pieces looking at climate disaster, DNA mutation and seed vaults prompt thought about the very diverse, very different futures toward which we are heading.

Being Human is on now at London's Wellcome Collection

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