What does it mean that there are over 5,000 cosmetic surgeons in the United States when there are acute shortages of primary care physicians? What are the consequences when a part of our body is deemed a subject of "enhancement"--noses, breasts, chins, and more recently toes and vaginas? Does this shift our sense of what bodies should look like? Does it change the very meaning of what a body is?
Even technologies that might seem unquestionably useful raise questions: Cochlear implants to restore hearing have raised concerns that deaf culture is being assaulted; new transplantation techniques raise the specter of poor people being harvested for body parts; our ubiquitous 'smart' phones not only provide ways to locate one's car, lunch, or friends, but soon become addictive extensions of our hands, our eyes, and our brains. What would a world be like where you couldn't contact someone in an instant, 24/7? Can you even remember?
These questions are the focus of a new exhibit at the Wellcome Collection, a London-based museum devoted to the history of medicine. Timed to coincide with the Olympics, ‘Superhuman' displays body technologies that range from false teeth to smart phones. As a lesson in the history of prosthetics, it analyzes the superhuman stars of comic books as well as ethical debates about the future of human enhancement. The purpose, writes curator Emily Sargent in a press release is to show that “human enhancement...is not the exclusive preserve of the contemporary technologist. Our desire to enhance ourselves and our ingenuity to do so is in evidence throughout our history.”
Take a look through the slideshow below to see some of what is featured in the exhibition: from a (potentially NSFW) ivory dildo to the first documented prosthetic toe.
Silver Prosthetic Nose
A painted silver prosthetic nose, mounted on a spectacle frame, mid-nineteenth century. This false nose was worn by a woman who had lost her own as a result of syphilis. She later presented it to her physician, stating that she had remarried and that her new husband preferred her without it. The nose is hollow and mounted on the bridge of a silver spectacle frame, which has two narrow adjustable silver straps, one passing behind the head and one over it from ear to ear to hold both spectacles and nose in place. The nose itself is painted to match the patient's flesh. Credit: Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons
Superbabe: meet Louise, the world's first test-tube arrival, 1978.
Microchip implanted into the forearm of Prof. Kevin Warwick, University of Reading in 1998.
Frontal correction of a complicated saddle nose.
Plastic Surgery Video Performance
<a href="http://www.reginajosegalindo.com/" target="_hplink">Regina Jose Galindo</a>, Recorte por la Linea (Cut Through the Line). Production stills from video-performance.
Knitted Breast Prosthesis
Pattern by Lactation Consultants of Great Britain. Knitted by Louise Sargent. Some cancer survivors who are waiting for, or have decided against surgical reconstruction find that knitted breast prostheses offer greater comfort than silicone alternatives. A charity was set up in the USA in 2007 to make and distribute knitted breasts.
Ivory dildo, in the form of an erect penis, complete with contrivance for simulating ejaculation, in cloth bag.
Cartonnage big toe with linen and gesso. The nail was inlaid originally with a different material; sleeving pierced with holes for attachment; from a mummy. Before 600 BC.
Whizzinator (tan) Manufactured by Alternative Lifestyle Systems This device was originally designed and marketed as a way of delivering clean urine samples. The Whizzinator was sold as a kit complete with dried urine and syringe, heater packs (to keep the urine at body temperature), a false penis (available in several skin tones including white, tan, latino, brown, and black) and instruction manual. The original manufacturers, Puck Technology, were prosecuted for conspiracy to defraud the US Government. The device is now marketed as a 'wet sex' toy.
Superhuman gallery shots (Wellcome Collection)
Ivory denture with human teeth
Cremaster 3, 2002
Matthew Barney <a href="http://www.cremaster.net/crem3.htm" target="_hplink">CREMASTER 3</a>, 2002 Production still ©2002 Matthew Barney.