Being Human, Wellcome Collection: review


Wellcome Collection’s new free permanent gallery explores trust, identity and health in a changing world



Fancy watching a branch of McDonald’s slowly sink over the course of twenty minutes? Of course you do: but schadenfreude aside, this mesmerizing video projection is a thought-provoking highlight of the Wellcome Collection’s new permanent gallery.

Visitors can sit and observe the built-to-scale replica of a McDonald’s burger bar gradually flooding with water, as furniture is washed away, appliances short circuit, and plastic cups and detritus floats around the room.

If you’re of a certain age you’ll recognise the interior depicted is its 1980s incarnation: artists Superflex, a Danish collective, explain that this was when they felt the chain was at its most iconic.

The film encourages us to reflect on consumption, capitalism and the effects of climate breakdown. And it’s extremely fitting for a show which explores “trust, identity and health in a changing world.”

General shot of installation (all courtesy of Wellcome Collection PR)

Featuring 50 artworks and objects, the new gallery, called Being Human, is curated by Clare Barlow, and replaces the Medicine Now exhibition after its long-runninng twelve-year stint. Marrying artists with science and medical knowledge, the gallery is divided into four sections – Genetics, Minds & Bodies, Infection, and Environmental Breakdown.

Other stimulating work comes in the form of Serge Tasic’s tank of zebrafish, underlining the fact that we share 70% of our genes with the little piscine creatures (which is why they’re often used in research). And I was absorbed by Laura Bethan Wood and Pietro Viero’s jukebox, which plays an eclectic rollcall of songs about worldwide epidemics, from AIDS to Ebola: artists include Magnetic Fields, LaTour, The Streets and Jimmy Somerville.

Then there are the ones that you can smell: Tasha Marks’ sculpture evokes the whiff of human breast milk, while ‘Panel With Smell Solutions’ releases the aroma of extinct plants from pressed 19th century specimens using sequenced DNA. You’ll be rubbing the wood a couple of times to release the addictive scent.

Elsewhere, The Friendship Bench is worth at least a moment’s reflection: a pioneering project which redesigned mental health care in Zimbabwe, founder Dixon Chibanda worked with volunteers to redefine mental distress, installing benches outside clinics on which grandmothers had structured conversation with people in mental distress. Pick up headphones to listen to the voices of different participants; it’s been so successful it’s now been rolled out across Africa and in New York.

Laura Bethan Wood and Pietro Viero’s jukebox with glass sculpture (2019)

I enjoyed Artist Adam Chodzko’s Too, which displayed found photographs of environmental disasters printed from slides dropped on the ground right here in Euston (and also Rome) and then reprinted. The resulting scratches and marks exacerbate a sense of urgency.

Finally, Don’t miss the – deep breath – faecal transplant kit, which tells us that “poo from a healthy person can be swallowed or inserted into the gut to increase the variety of bacteria”. It’s used to treat antibiotic resistant deadly diarrhoea. Eye-opening, indeed.

High above the thoroughfare of the frenetic Euston Road, Being Human certainly leaves us with food for thought, on how we feel about ourselves, our bodies and our connection with everything spinning around us. Never has it been more fitting than now – as we approach 2020 – to ask what it means to be human in the 21st century.

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Free entry, open daily 10am to 6pm (Thursdays till 9pm), closed Mondays, 183 Euston Road NW1, more info

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