Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Aside from sounding like the ramblings of a philosophy student at three in the morning these are the ever pertinent questions addressed by two artworks currently on display at Wellcome Collection. This month Charlie Morgan takes a look at how these objects may offer answers to those questions.
Regular visitors to Medicine Now will be familiar with Origin by Daniel Lee. The looped video shows an animated Coelacanth-type fish evolve through reptiles and primates into a modern human: the scales disappear, the tails get shorter and, eventually, the body stands upright. By using smooth linking manipulated photos as opposed to clunky still images we are able to experience evolution as a fluid process and not just as a series of isolated points throughout history. Four floors up and in our Foreign Bodies: Common Ground exhibition, another piece does something very similar.
Katie Paterson is an award-winning Scottish artist who for six months was in residence at the Sanger Institute in Cambridgeshire. Here she became interested in genomic archaeology and after sourcing 170 different fossils (the oldest of which is a mere 3.5 billion years old) she had them carved into identically shaped beads and strung up on a necklace. The result is the first fashion accessory to document the history of life on earth and the first to ask the question “does my dinosaur stomach stone match my shoes?”
In Origin, the Coelacanth that starts the video emerged about 350-400 million years ago; in Fossil Necklace it would probably only appear about halfway down the right hand side. Fossil Necklace instead begins with the first single celled bacterial organisms to populate earth around 3.6 billion years ago. Since then, the earth and the living creatures that reside on it have developed, changed and evolved. As Katie Paterson notes, the only real links we have between them all is the DNA that the Sanger Institute studies and the fossils that she has collected.
While Fossil Necklace ends with the occurrence of written records approximately five thousand years ago, it also gives us a basis to pose questions about the future. Through Fossil Necklace we encounter five mass extinction events. These include the Late Devonian extinction which wiped out 75% of life on earth, but which was then topped by the aptly named ‘Great Dying’ and a whopping 95%. The most recent mass extinction was the most famous, the K/T extinction, which resulted in the death of the dinosaurs and a subsequent abundance of competing “whodunnit?” theories. 65 million years later and in an age of uncontested human dominance, a number of scientists are speculating a future – or, more accurately, an already underway – sixth extinction event: the Holocene extinction. We’ve already seen the death of the Dodo, the Auroch and the Mammoth to name but three amongst many, many others but it’s now estimated that “nearly 20,000 species of animals and plants around the globe are considered high risks for extinction in the wild”. How many of our present day creatures will soon just be fossils on a necklace?
Likewise Origin, by emphasising the various stages of human evolution (and as a result emphasising the ways in which those stages have adapted in order to survive), allows us to ask questions about what the future might hold for humanity. There is no shortage of theories; transhumanism anticipates a future merging of humanity with technology; a scientist has predicted we’ll soon be growing beaks; and one visitor to Foreign Bodies has suggested that the X-Men might be the most realistic prediction of future evolution. There is not much evidence to suggest humans are currently moving towards a new anatomical form or that we’ll soon be self-healing or shape shifting. Still, faced with constant fluctuations in the environment, climate and inhabitants of earth, both Fossil Necklace and Origin suggest we can be sure of one thing: something’s going to change.
Charlie Morgan is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection and Foreign Bodies: Common Ground is on until 16th March.