26 Apr

24th March-31st August 2011, Wellcome Collection, London

I’ve never seen a bad exhibition at the Wellcome Trust. They always seem to be staged in a blunt, no-nonsense magpie spirit that would be appreciated by Henry Wellcome himself, the Victorian-Edwardian mentalist who obsessively dedicated his life and his wealth to collecting every votive clay penis, prosthetic limb, medical mannequin or African witch doctor mask he could lay his hands on¹. Wellcome’s exhibitions generally hit the sweet spot where edification is balanced with entertainment, science with art, and documentary with speculation. They’re a joy for me particularly, as a person who believes that art should actually have a subject and be about something. Art should be about provoking thought or feeling or action or insight; art should not just be about the artist neutrally presenting what they see or what they found without oversight or comment. The worst art of all is just about other art or other artists. In this exhibition, as in the others, the contemporary art and the selected images and objects are equally inspiring or illuminating in their own ways, and play well together.

I have to say that this exhibition isn’t nearly as much fun as the previous effort on psychedelics and psychedelia, but I suppose anyone can make an engaging show about being ripped to the tits on drugs. Making an interesting, coherent exhibition about rubbish and crap is perhaps more of an achievement, albeit one that’s likely to go unsung. I think it suffices to say that I had a pleasant afternoon and I’m now rather more enthusiastic and knowledgeable than I would otherwise have been about cholera, London’s 19th century sewer system² and the politics of public toilets in India.

¹ There’s a great book on Wellcome and the permanent historic collection, published by British Museum Press: ‘Medicine Man’, edited by Ken Arnold and Danielle Olsen.

² Masterminded by Joseph Bazalgette, whose great-great grandson Peter Bazalgette is still pumping vast quantities of shit via his TV production company Endemol, the enemies of Western civilisation who produce Deal or No Deal, Big Brother and other reality shows.


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