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Prosthetic technology in sport on display at the Wellcome Collection ahead of the Olympics and Paralympics

The Wellcome Collection puts its best (false) foot forward

The Wellcome Collection is gearing up for the throng of visitors expected to flood London for the Olympics and Paralympics with a show exploring the ways in which people have sought to improve or enhance their bodies throughout history. “We wanted to respond to the Olympics in a way that wasn’t a straightforward examination of sports science or sports physiology,” says Emily Sargent, the show’s curator, adding that ­discussions related to the ­intersection between the Olympics and the Paralympics proved to be particularly interesting, given that the use of prosthetic technology in sports is a hot topic. “The show examines the issue of enhancement technology in quite a playful way—what it is, how it has existed throughout history, how we currently interact with this technology and what we can expect in the future.”

The exhibition, which features more than 100 pieces, including videos, comics, medical devices, photographs and artefacts, explores a range of issues associated with enhancement technology. The anxiety caused by new technology is illustrated with “The General Adoption of the Rolling Skate”, a 1860s illustration from Punch magazine. “It’s a satirical view of how London will look with the advent of the roller skate, and captures the anxiety of the prospect of old ways being replaced by new gadgets,” Sargent says.

The historical use of prosthetics as functional devices and as a means to deal with society’s discomfort at seeing missing body parts is also examined. This section contains the earliest piece on view, a prosthetic toe from Egypt dating from 600BC. Matthew Barney’s 2002 film Cremaster 3 will be shown and the American artist is lending the Portuguese man o’war tentacle legs worn by Aimee Mullins, the athlete and amputee in the film. “Mullins takes on a number of roles and identities by wearing different sets of legs. This is a different approach to prosthetics; instead of trying to conform to something, it looks at her disability as an opportunity to reinterpret her own body,” Sargent says.

Works by other contemporary artists include Rebecca Horn’s finger extensions, Scratching Both Walls at Once, 1974-75, and Revital Cohen’s The Immortal, 2011, an assemblage made of medical technology used to sustain a person with failing organs including a respirator and a heart-lung machine.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The Wellcome Collection puts its best (false) foot forward'