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Medicine Man-A Cabinet of Curiosities from the sublime to the ridiculous #3 at The Wellcome Collection
February 21, 2016
The biography of the object springs Medicine Man into action at a good pace, starting
with their reappropriation. This happens immediately as I am confronted by a mysterious, streamlined chair made of blades.
This torture throne come Chinese dragon chair has been consumed into Western culture and altered in context and function through canny marketing. Encased in an exhibition, its past identities of a prop for ritual and a torture device are now mingled with high art and didactic history by this new way viewing.
The Glassware Case hits you with order and beauty, gawping at medical glass jars glowing in hues of seaside blues, the biography of the object continues. It is an evolution through time, accessed in one sweeping glance or in bite size chunks, on an audio where I have autonomy to choose how in depth I explore each section or hidden behind doors or in drawers.
I am in my element here, marvelling at the beauty of the repetition of objects- from the development of amputation tools to giant, shiny and terrifying forceps. What Medicine Man does well is use the aesthetics of the exhibition to influence its interpretation. In one image I can observe how amputation tools became more streamlined, less decorative and more hygienic. Opening doors, peering in draws, pottering about my very own cabinet of curiosities, I am acutely aware that however artily portrayed- these artefacts have a real and often terrifying relationship with the human body. Feeling very flesh and blood myself- and slightly exposed in this giant cabinet- humanity never stops being the real subject of this semi-immersive display.
The objects are provocative and often throw into light controversy or current debate. Gender, commodification and sexuality are just a handful of themes that are highlighted with subtle irony.
The video’s demonstration of how the showcased objects work and move is spot on. Tickling, armoured looking mechanical fingers tickled my fancy, as did the ‘Fruit and Vegetables containing erotic scenes'.
I peer quizzically at a scraggy old looking bit of hair which appears to be the most underwhelming object to be found in its very own lit glass inlet in the wall. As I play an audio from above I laugh as its significance in reinterpreting George III’s madness through its traces of arsenic! I chuckled my way through this exhibition at the sly silliness of its objects juxtaposed with their role in society or groundbreaking developments in science which place them in a canon of medical history.
Sir Henry Maxim’s ‘Pipe of Peace’ (1910), was invented by the same chap responsible for the first automatic machine gun. Another lesson in marketing, Maxim’s signature and portrait seal the deal, guaranteeing this inhaler for bronchitis despite the risk of it harming his good reputation- as warned by peers. That esteemed reputation in inventing a machine that kills people!
Indicative of Wellcome’s curatorial style, each exhibition is incredibly selective. Each theme illustrated so concisely that viewers are saved from wondering aimlessly through vast displays. Instead, carefully chosen exhibitions allow you to access via themes in depth whilst the eclectic and diverse range of evocative samples maintain breadth.
Medicine Man is a classy exhibition full of little surprises and just the right size to have learnt enough to feel satisfied whilst leaving with the potential for a repeat visit. Although there is a strong element of honouring Henry Wellcome in a patriotic sense- underlined by the turning of functional objects into commodities with perhaps a shady regard from where they have been poached-the thematic structure takes precedence making this an intriguing and curious cacophony of precious bits and bobs. I conclude that Henry was as mad as a hatter but it’s the brains behind this exhibition and the curator’s wry sense of humour that I applaud.