Our exhibition space has always housed thought-provoking art, objects and ideas but our last exhibition Superhuman was the first to stimulate curiosity through live performances in the gallery space itself. Natalie Coe was there for the final events, exploring the (dis)ability of the human body through dance.
The gallery events for Superhuman took a variety of formats: one-on-one consultations, small group discussions and larger group demonstrations. It was important to provide surprising, dynamic events without forgetting that this was essentially an exhibition where people might want to look at the pieces on display in peace. With this in mind, most of the events were confined to the designated area towards the end of the exhibition and generally you could visit without even realising there was an event going on just a few metres away. However, the finale of the series broke out of this area and did a fantastic job of making use of the whole exhibition space without being intrusive.
If visitors were here on 10- 12 October, they may well have been unknowingly accompanied around the exhibits by seven dancers, only distinguishable from other visitors by being dressed head to toe in black. These dancers were part of a live performance by Candoco Dance Company. As a Visitor Services Assistant, I was lucky enough to be in the exhibition when it was happening so experienced the event first-hand. Though I knew it was scheduled, it still retained that essence of being a performance I had spontaneously discovered. The dancers began each performance by meandering through the exhibition, weaving between people, our innovative protein-bottle themed stools, museum objects and art exhibits before slowly assembling in the event space. The explorations of movement that ensued looked highly choreographed, as the dancers seemed to know what each of them were going to do next and could rely on their fellow dancers’ bodies to support their own. Every tiny step appeared to depend on complete trust between the dancers who would climb on each other, balance against each other, even pull each other along. Surprisingly, it became apparent over the three days that the performances were partly improvised; further evidence of the dancers’ amazing ability to read each other’s movements and be entirely comfortable with their own and each other’s bodies.
Equally unexpected was the realisation, after I’d been watching it for quite a while, that one of the dancer’s legs stopped at the knee and that several of the dancers had disabilities. Candoco is a dance company of disabled and non-disabled dancers and the performance was intended to explode the concept of what is ‘superhuman’ and what is ‘normal’, by exploring what movements these disabled and non-disabled bodies are capable of. During the course of the exhibition, I had come to think that striving to enhance ourselves, for better or for worse, is a fundamental part of being human. Using culture and technology to adapt to a range of environments is arguably our defining characteristic. With this in mind, perhaps the enhancements in the exhibition don’t make us superhuman after all, just human (though this wouldn’t be a very stimulating exhibition title!). If none of us are superhuman, does that mean we shouldn’t think of disabled dancers as any more superhuman than non-disabled dancers? Or does it mean that all dancers are superhuman? Or is dancing just another aspect of being human?
That said, it was extraordinary to watch how the dancers worked together, for example in lifting each other up to the ceiling and in animating one dancer with crutches; making him move across the room like a puppet. It was in those moments that I felt the dancers were really enhanced, when they used each other to produce shapes and movements that became more than the sum of their parts. Our tours and events are designed to expand on questions raised in our exhibitions so it’s great that the idea of ‘working together as a form of enhancement’ could be drawn out by Candoco. It’s why it worked so well in situ too – it was far more interesting to watch the dancers stand on a stool you’d just been sitting on, make eye contact with you and spill out into the audience than if it had been on a stage outside the exhibition. This format had the added bonus of feeling like a real treat that visitors could stumble upon, in contrast to our bookable events. It was a pleasure to be able to tell people that there was an event happening right there and then that they could start watching and leave at any time. I look forward to future collaborations between Wellcome Collection’s exhibitions and events teams to encourage speakers, performers and artists into the gallery spaces.
Natalie Coe is a Visitor Service Assistant at Welcome Collection.
Our ‘Superhuman’ exhibition and accompanying live event series has now finished but please see our website for information about our upcoming exhibition ‘Death’, permanent galleries and events.
Candoco Dance Company is a dance company of disabled and non-disabled dancers. It creates excellent and profound experiences for audiences and participants that excite, challenge and broaden perceptions of art and ability. Candoco commissions productions created by world-class choreographers for national and international touring, and delivers an extensive learning programme to provide broad access to the highest-quality dance and advocate for a more inclusive and diverse cultural sector. They recently performed as part of the South Bank Centre’s ‘Unlimited’ festival.