Generosity Plates

Wellcome Collection’s foyer and café have become home to small miracles of nature with a newly commissioned intervention of artworks, sculptures and plant propagation by the artist John Newling. The Moringa tree (Moringa oleifera) is often called the miracle tree, such is its nutritional richness. Native to the Himalayas it is a unique and exciting opportunity to see them growing alongside the artworks. Kate Gosling asks John Newling some questions about his work.

It seems the Moringa tree is a fantastic food source high in necessary nutrients. Are there any other foodstuffs that compare?

There are many remarkably nutritious plants but Moringa oleifera has amongst the most known nutriments within its leaves. It is a natural food supplement and is used in areas of famine or very low nutrient diets. With the rise of a renewed interest in plants and trees through plant biology research I suspect and hope species as generous as the moringa tree will be discovered.

Photo © John Newling.

Photo © John Newling.

Do you grow Moringa oliefera at home? Have you eaten it?

Yes, I have grown many Moringa trees at home in a grow tent I have in my studio. These are grown in very sandy soils with the tent set to replicate sub-tropical climate conditions. What is brilliant is the close observation I can have with these remarkable trees.

I have eaten the leaves of the tree in salads and separately. They have a very strong flavour, somewhere between cabbage and peppers. I have also made Moringa tea which did not taste very good. I suspect this is why Moringa tea recipes on the internet all suggest vast dollops of honey in them. In the main, the leaves are harvested, dried and made into a nutrient supplement powder that is very effective in aiding better nutrition.

What’s your favourite recipe for these?

I did enjoy the leaves in salads; mainly because they were so difficult to grow and I was so pleased to have geminated and grown a tree to be able to eat a few leaves.

Photo © John Newling.

Photo © John Newling.

What’s the best way we can look after the plants whilst they growing in the café, next to the Euston Road?

In many ways the attempt to grow these trees at  Wellcome Collection is an experiment with all the risks that are inherent in such work. They are being grown in a hydroponic environment that gives them the soil pH of 6.2 – 6.5 and enough sunlight equivalent to give them excellent growing conditions. Someone from Wellcome will keep an eye on them particularly in the first couple of weeks when there are adjusting to the new environment and are very fragile.

Because these trees are not growing in soil, they are getting their nutrients from the waters that flood and drain the roots every three hours. It does mean that the water’s nutrient and ph level is checked regularly. From previous attempts to grow these I think a few trees will be weak whilst a few will dominate the ecology so to speak. If we manage to keep the trees alive it will be an achievement in close observation and learning for all of us.

Photo © John Newling.

Photo © John Newling.

Does the Moringa plant feel more spiritual to tend to than any other plant?

I think it’s not necessarily the plant itself but the process of working with a plant that creates an intimacy of wonder that is, I guess, close to a spirituality. I am not a great grower of stuff but I learn so much about us and the world through trying to grow plants like the Moringa. This approach of close observation and learning, for me, came from a project called The Lemon Tree and Me”: I attempted to grow a lemon tree in compost which I had made of 85% printed paper.

I wrote an account of the learning, reflections and thoughts through the 688 days of the work. I think that it is in careful, thoughtful observation that we can both find spirituality of a kind and new understanding.

John talks more about the spiritual here.

Photo © John Newling.

Photo © John Newling.

What is your next project?

In July I have work at the Ikon Gallery Birmingham and will also be beginning a new project: “21st Century Eden” in York. Later in the year I hope to work (funding dependant) with the John Innes laboratory developing ideas, learning and making through collaborations with the brilliant plant Biological Chemistry team.

Kate is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Uncanny Mutations and Astonishing Mutants

X-Men: Days of Future Past is now in cinemas, billed as the most action packed and ambitious film in the X-Men saga. What better time to use the classic, long-running comic series as inspiration for a post about mutations whilst taking a look at some of the other aspects that make these superheroes more than just men in tights.

Before we go any further: what exactly is mutation and how does it happen? Joel Carlin explains:

“Mutation is a change in the sequence of an organism’s DNA. Mutations can be caused by high-energy sources such as radiation or by chemicals in the environment. They can also appear spontaneously during the replication of DNA.” (Carlin, 2011)

It is this latter method that the writers of the X-Men comics employ as an explanation for their superhuman characters’ astonishing abilities. In real life, as in the comics, mutations can be expressed in a range of ways: sometimes they are harmful and sometimes they have little (or even no) effect. Very rarely, though, the altered DNA may turn out to benefit the organism in some way.

Heralded as the next step in human evolution by some and an abomination by the rest , X-Men presents the arrival of these mutations among a small percentage of the population (mutants) as a polarising event in society. Taking inspiration from real-world social issues (such as anti-Semitism, diversity, LGBT issues, religion and subculture) and exploring heavy themes (from discrimination and persecution to revolution and equality), X-Men is more than just superhuman characters in impossible outfits showcasing their extraordinary abilities. Although this mix of the political, social and incredible is undoubtedly part of the series’ enduring popularity, it is arguably the characters and their unique skills which have truly captured people’s imaginations.

These abilities vary hugely across the series in terms of their nature, as well as their believability. From weather manipulation or teleportation to becoming intangible or running at the speed of sound; from accelerated healing or shapeshifting to freezing solid or astounding strength. Some of these exist in nature already (click the preceding links to find out more).

Biotechnology, another theme explored in X-Men, already allows scientists to imbue one organism with the “powers” of another, from transgenic goats that excrete spider silk protein in their milk to glow in the dark kittens. It doesn’t seem that far fetched to consider future applications of biotechnology including enhancing human beings with abilities of other organisms.

Of course, rapid changes to our genome may not be driven by science alone. Although many species have been affected gradually by smaller mutations, sometimes evolution works more rapidly:

“Several types of organisms have an ancestor that failed to undergo meiosis correctly prior to sexual reproduction, resulting in a total duplication of every chromosome pair. Such a process created an “instant speciation” event in the gray treefrog of North America.” (Carlin, 2011)

Could an “instant speciation” event occur among humans and, if it did, what form might it take? It’s tempting to imagine people of the future being able to emit concussive blasts from their eyes or manipulate metal with their mind, although not very realistic. X-Men first appeared in 1963 (partially inspired by the African-American civil rights movement) and the powers imagined for X-Men’s mutants are very much a product of 20th century minds. What, then, would the mutants have been like had they been dreamt up a little bit earlier?

Delving into the Wellcome Library and Images yields many examples of mutants and mutations throughout history, offering a glimpse into what was capturing people’s imaginations hundreds of years ago. During the 1500s and 1600s, “monsters” seemed to be everywhere: collected by royalty, catalogued by naturalists and even used as a means of religious indoctrination.

In Armand Marie Leroi’s book, Mutants, he writes about the Monster of Ravenna:

“…a monster had been born at Ravenna; it had a horn on its head, straight up like a sword, and instead of arms it had two wings like a bat’s, and the height of its breasts it had a fio [Y-shaped mark] on one side and a cross on the other, and lower down at the waist, two serpents, and it was a hermaphrodite, and on the right knee it had an eye, and its left foot was like an eagle.”

The monster of Ravenna, 1554.

The monster of Ravenna, 1554.

Ravenna fell to French troops shortly after its monster’s birth; a causal link was identified by some at the time with Italians taking it to symbolise the horrors of war. The French, on the other hand, interpreted it as a symbol of Italian vices.

Several ornate and beautiful works were produced to document the occurrence of these monsters. From the Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon (1557) in Germany, to the Histoires prodigieuses (1560-82) in France and De monstrorum natura caussis et differentiis (1616) in Italy. Originally considered a sign of divine disapproval or a portent of doom, religious factions used these deformities in propaganda and vitriol directed at others, citing them as symbols of corruption.

In the case of conjoined twins, such as those featured in Histoires prodigieuses, many saw their arrival as a sign of political union, but others saw them as signs of God’s omnipotence (as opposed to any opinion He may have on our affairs). Or was it just a chance happening? La querelle des monsters (the quarrel of the monsters) described this conflict between the different positions: deformity as devine design and deformity as accident.

Monster (conjoined twins) born on the borders of England and Normandy,  1560. From Histoires prodigieuses.

Monster (conjoined twins) born on the borders of England and Normandy, 1560. From Histoires prodigieuses.

Below are a few more examples of these “monsters”. Or, rather, individuals who have been affected by mutations which in one way or another set them apart. Instead of portents of doom, religious signs or sideshow freaks, can you better imagine them as part of a team of crime fighting superheroes? Or, even better, as people?

Two Christian princesses who could not be harmed by fire, 1560. From Histoires prodigieuses.

Two Christian princesses who could not be harmed by fire, 1560. From Histoires prodigieuses.

A virgin entirely furry like a bear presented to the Empereur and King of Boheme, 1560. From Histoires Prodigieuses.

A virgin entirely furry like a bear presented to the Empereur and King of Boheme, 1560. From Histoires Prodigieuses.

Born in Poland in 1890 as Stephan Bibrowsky, “Lionel the Lion Faced Boy” suffered from hypertrichosis. This postcard would probably have been sold as a souvenir at places where Lionel was exhibited as part of a freak or variety show.

Postcard showing Lionel the Lion Faced Boy, born in 1890 .

Postcard showing Lionel the Lion Faced Boy, born in 1890 .

The Selenetidae women, contrary to the nature of other women, give birth to eggs, from which emerge five year old men, ten times bigger than us.

Selenetidae women giving birth to eggs, 1557. From Prodigiorum ac ostentorum Chronicon.

Selenetidae women giving birth to eggs, 1557. From Prodigiorum ac ostentorum Chronicon.

A young child whose intestines were exposed to view, through a strange infirmity of nature, 1560. From Histoires Prodigieuses.

A young child whose intestines were exposed to view, through a strange infirmity of nature, 1560. From Histoires Prodigieuses.

"Monstrous bodies", 1634. From De monstrorum natura caussis et differentiis.

“Monstrous bodies”, 1634. From De monstrorum natura caussis et differentiis.

In 77CE Pliny the Elder documented the incredible races of people to be found in India and Ethiopia: monopods; dog-headed Cynocephali, people without heads but with eyes between their shoulder blades; people with many more digits on fingers hands and feet; people who lived for over a thousand years; and the Cyclops.

A "cyclops". Or: an infant with one central eye.

A “cyclops”. Or: an infant with one central eye.

"Abnormalities", 1557. From Prodigiorum ac ostentorum Chronicon.

“Abnormalities”, 1557. From Prodigiorum ac ostentorum Chronicon.

The public have been and always will be curious about difference. The enduring popularity of places like Wellcome Collection or Morbid Anatomy and the obsession with extreme human body documentaries would seem to confirm this. Whether “mutants” are celebrated or targeted, it gives us a way to reflect upon our own nature.

Russell Dornan is the Web Editor at Wellcome Collection.

Module Units: Alexia Roumpou

Module Units is an installation of young artists’  work from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and Central Foundation Boys’  School. This collaborative display of artwork was initially inspired by our recent Foreign Bodies, Common Ground exhibition and our permanent collections, and has been coordinated and curated by artist Verity-Jane Keefe. Hear from the artists who took part in the project as they discuss the project as a whole as well as the final installation of their work.

Alexia Roumpou, Central Saint Martins Progression group

Observing my piece in a professional space  surrounded in a variety of different fragments made me understand how important this project was.

The experience I gained from this exhibition made me think deeper about the process of making and also made me think in a more mature and skilful way. It was interesting to see the viewers look at my piece and try to understand what I’m trying to express.

Alexia 1

The curation of the pieces was interesting too; I’ve never seen something like this before.

Doing this exhibition helped me focus and manage my time. I’m glad I participated: now I understand how challenging it is to put your work together and exhibit it, but it’s worth the time you spend and I would definitely do it again.

Read Alexia’s personal statement about her work and see an image that relates to the process of creating it here.

Module Units: Elenor Hellis

Module Units is an installation of young artists’ work from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and Central Foundation Boys’ School. This collaborative display of artwork was initially inspired by our recent Foreign Bodies, Common Ground exhibition and our permanent collections, and has been coordinated and curated by artist Verity-Jane Keefe. Hear from the artists who took part in the project as they discuss the project as a whole as well as the final installation of their work.

Elenor Hellis, Central Saint Martins BA Fine Art

As part of our Unit 6 at Central Saint Martins, we had the unique and fantastic opportunity of choosing what institutions we wanted to do a project with. We had the option of working with several galleries, museums, publishers and performers. I chose Wellcome Collection as it has been my dream from the age of about seventeen to have some kind of involvement with it. I was always fascinated by the crossover between medicine and art. It made perfect sense as we were asked to respond to the themes of Wellcome Collection’s recent exhibition titled Foreign Bodies, Common Ground and I had recently been making a series of work which was closely related to this.

Last summer I did a performance at Lewisham Art House, which involved a specimen slide microscope and a USB endoscope, which involved extracting parts of my body (such as eyelashes, hair, tears, eye mucus and eyebrows) and making these into specimen slides, viewable under a microscope.

Elenor 1

I wanted to return to the themes of this performance; however, this time I wanted to give these ‘foreign bodies’ more of a narrative. I began to construct a text which talked about all twenty foreign bodies used in my piece. The text would be a blending of scientific and personal narratives, in which I would talk about the purpose, loss and stigma attached to a foreign body (such as hair in food, bogeys on the wall or the replacement of blue liquid in Sanitary Towel adverts).

I began making slides.

Elenor 2

Overall I found the experience of the project really engaging. It was interesting to see how young artists at different stages of their artistic education interacted and responded to each other’s work. I liked the surprise element of the project where no one was 100% sure of what we were all going to make and the mystery of whether our pieces were going to work alongside each other. I think the final result was quite interesting. I had slight concerns as to how my younger peers (and their parents) were going to respond to my work, as I was dealing with quite mature and personal themes. Overall, I had quite a positive and mature response to my work and I think the output of work from others was very impressive.

Elenor 3

It was interesting seeing the work altogether in the room. I used to work in a gallery and it was always really fascinating to see the work either being packed or unpacked in the boxes and you would see glimpses of the work wrapped up in bubble wrap. This exhibition reminded me of that: it was an unpacking, in an in-between state, of work viewable but still in their crates.

Read Elenor’s personal statement about her work and see an image that relates to the process of creating it here.

Module Units: Hannah Buller

Module Units is an installation of young artists’ work from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and Central Foundation Boys’ School. This collaborative display of artwork was initially inspired by our recent Foreign Bodies, Common Ground exhibition and our permanent collections, and has been coordinated and curated by artist Verity-Jane Keefe. Hear from the artists who took part in the project as they discuss the project as a whole as well as the final installation of their work.

Hannah Buller, Central Saint Martins Progression group

My piece is about me locking myself away in my bedroom whilst dealing with depression. I would surround myself with comforting things like pillows and duvets, toys from my childhood and writing in my diary. I wanted to do a performance to help bring my piece to life. I wanted to do the performance myself and not someone else because it is a personal piece another person would not be able to replicate it in the same way.

Hannah during her performance piece.

Hannah during her performance piece.

Before doing my performance piece I was really nervous. I hadn’t done a performance piece before and had some concerns. Will people take notice of my performance? Will I step out of character? Amongst other thoughts. However, whilst doing the performance I just blocked everyone out. The more I got into the performance the more natural it felt.

Hannah writes in her diary during her performance piece.

Hannah writes in her diary during her performance piece.

I felt that 15 minutes should be enough for my performance, but I probably could have done the whole night. Doing the performance has really boosted my confidence and pushed me to put myself out there and take ownership of my art. I got great feedback from the other artists and viewers.

Read Hannah’s personal statement about her work and see an image that relates to the process of creating it here.

Fancy being a curator?

With Wellcome Collection’s development project underway, the Youth Programme team wanted to recruit young people to develop their handling collection, to be used during study days and future projects. From January to April 2014, Visitor Experience Assistant Muriel Bailly had the chance to work alongside the team on a fantastic project called Fancy Being a Curator? and tells us about her experience. 

Developing a new collection is always challenging, even for experienced curators. Luckily we had just the right people for the job: a group of nine young people aged 14 to 19 who volunteered to take part in the project. Over only five sessions they managed to acquire the most wonderful objects for our handling collection.

To help the group to become familiar with the museum’s collection, they visited our galleries on the first day of the project, as well as our stored collection at Blythe House. Needless to say, it was a heavy day for the participants. They had to absorb an incredible amount of information! Lesser individuals may have run away but the group bravely stuck to it, their curiosity triggered by our collection.

The youth group get to grips with Henry Wellcome’s collection by visiting Blythe House. (©Wellcome Images)

The youth group get to grips with Henry Wellcome’s collection by visiting Blythe House. (©Wellcome Images)

Over the following sessions the group met with various key staff members at Wellcome Collection to get an understanding of all aspects of collection management. With Ken Arnold, Head of Public Programmes, they discussed curatorial decision making: how do you decide what is worth acquiring and what isn’t? How do you create a narrative through your collection and how do you communicate this narrative effectively through label and panel writing?

Members of our Visitor Experience team, Jeremy Bryans and Rob Bidder (yes, the famous one from our Curious Conversations), explored the galleries’ handling collection with the group and discussed how we use it in context with visitors.

After these sessions, newly armed with information and insight, the group were ready to buy new objects for our collection. After seeing so much of our collections the group brainstormed and identified the main themes for the new objects: the history of medicine; body image; and the history of sexuality. By the end of a very long day of intense research on the internet, the group had acquired 14 objects linked to the themes identified. They got it spot on.

For instance, for the history of sexuality (to complement the Chinese sexual aids and Victorian anti masturbation device displayed in Medicine Man), we now have a collection of 1920s sexual education booklets which make for delightful reading:

“Never wear social dress to business. A low neck behind a counter or at a desk is as much out of place as high heels shoes and thin hose. Dress with becoming modesty.” Extract from Sex Facts for the Adolescent and Matured Woman by S. Dana Hubbard, M.D, New York.

Young people and members of the public get closer to the newly acquired collection. (©Wellcome Images)

Young people and members of the public get closer to the newly acquired collection. (©Wellcome Images)

After ordering the objects, our young people met with conservators Stefania Signorello and Amy Junker Heslip to discuss the conservation and monitoring needs of the newly acquired collection.

Finally, for the last day of the project, the youth group curated their own exhibition. They put on a display of their objects in our brand new studio and delivered handling sessions, talks and had fun with visitors popping in.

Young people and members of the public get closer to the newly acquired collection. (©Wellcome Images)

Young people and members of the public get closer to the newly acquired collection. (©Wellcome Images)

Young people and members of the public get closer to the newly acquired collection. (©Wellcome Images)

Young people and members of the public get closer to the newly acquired collection. (©Wellcome Images)

I was aware we were asking much from these young people. Over only a few weeks they had to build familiarity not only with our large collection but also with the principles of collections management and develop the confidence to expose their work to other museum professionals, but they did it brilliantly. The success of this project is, to me, a perfect example of the wonderful things that can happen when you give voice to your audience and visitors. I hope to see more of this, both here at Wellcome Collection and elsewhere.

Muriel Bailly is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Contemplating the Contemporary: Sculpture

Contemporary art is all around us, but we often still ask: “Is it art?” In the first of a new blog series exploring how and why we make art, Guillaume Vandame looks at sculpture in our Medicine Now gallery and beyond for Contemplating the Contemporary.

Contemporary art of the twenty-first century is driven in part by advancements and innovations in the practice of sculpture. In particular, artists are interested in using mixed media, found objects and ready-mades, triumphed by artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Marcel Duchamp, and at the same time, developing highly sophisticated forms of fabrication, as exemplified by Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami. These contemporary strategies to making sculpture are continued with some of the artists featured in the Medicine Now gallery. Click each image for more information.

Robert Rauschenberg, Canyon. 1959. (© 2014 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel. 1951. (© 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris / Estate of Marcel Duchamp)

Jeff Koons, Pink Panther. 1988. (© 2014 Jeff Koons)

Takashi Murakami, Fire sculpture. 2013. (© 2013 Takashi Murakami / Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved.)

Damien Hirst, Mother and Child (Divided). 1993-2007. (© Damien Hirst and Science Ltd.)

In the first space in Medicine Now, on the theme of Obesity and Genetics, there are two sculptures produced by John Isaacs and Rob Kesseler. Isaacs’ sculpture is striking and one of the first works visitors recognise in the gallery. I Can’t Help the Way I Feel was produced in 2004 and made predominantly from wax. Wax and wax-like materials such as fibreglass plastic have been investigated by a range of contemporary artists from Duane Hanson to Ron Mueck, predominantly in the pursuit of hyperrealism and strange, uncanny representations of the body.

John Isaacs, I Can Not Help The Way I Feel. 2003. (Courtesy of Wellcome Collection, London.)

Duane Hanson, Man on Mower. 1995. (© Estate of Duane Hanson/Licensed by VAGA/New York, NY)

Ron Mueck, A Girl. 2006. (© National Gallery of Canada.)

Despite its popularity as a material, this is not your typical wax sculpture of a famous celebrity you would find at Madame Tussaud’s. John Isaacs’s sculpture, in effect, could represent anyone and, at the same time, serves as an allegory of obesity; the ultimate visualisation of excessive consumption, corpulence and greed. The sculpture is pulsating and visceral, a quality which Isaacs exaggerates and seizes as an opportunity to strike our imagination about the possibilities of obesity. Perhaps the most terrifying aspect represented through its amorphous curves and folds is the anonymity of such a sculpture which could at once appear realistic and unknown. In this way, Isaacs presents a subject which is less about itself and more about our own critical reception and attitudes towards body image and its relationship to space.

Shown together with Kesseler’s, Bud, from 2002, the two sculptures deliberate ideas of consumption and the body. In contrast to Isaacs, who is much more hands on and appreciates the materiality and humanity of sculpture, Kessler presents a sculpture with no trace of his body and emphasises the sophisticated processes of creating new media through its fabrication.

Rob Kesseler, Bud. 2002. (Courtesy of the artist and Wellcome Collection, London.)

The sculpture is a glass vessel, shaped like a wine glass, missile or trophy, and filled with genetically modified soy beans. Kessler’s exploration of genetic modification considers some of the multifaceted positions surrounding the subject.

On one level, there are the unknown consequences of genetic modification. In particular, there is the concern that genetically modified foods could adversely affect our health while having an unforeseen impact on the environment. On another level, there are the obvious advantages of genetic modification: accelerated food production could yield a surplus which could eradicate hunger and world poverty.

Kesseler’s slickness and austere minimalism is used to great effect with this work of art and is a characteristic which follows some of the other key works in Medicine Now, including sculptures by Mauro Peruchetti, Annie Cattrell and Luke Jerram. The act of reducing an object to its most basic form is used to demonstrate the spiritual essence or physicality of a work of art, as spearheaded with modernist masters such as Donald Judd, Carl Andre and Richard Serra. In other cases it is used to emphasise ideas of industrialisation, consumerism and mechanical reproduction, exemplified by the gaudy, oversized sculptures of cheeseburgers, ice cream and cake by Claes Oldenburg, comparable to Peruchetti’s series of deliciously coloured  jelly babies made from polyurethane. Everyday life, through both subject matter and material, thus becomes a central focus of contemporary sculpture displayed in Medicine Now and remains an integral aspect of international artists working today.

Annie Cattrell, SENSE. 2001-2003. (Courtesy of the artist and Wellcome Collection, London.)

Donald Judd, Untitled (Stack). 1967. (© Helen Acheson Bequest (by exchange) and gift of Joseph Helman)

Luke Jerram, Swine Flu Virus (H1N1). (Courtesy of the artist and Wellcome Collection, London.)

Mauro Perucchetti, Jelly Baby 3. 2004. (Courtesy of the artist and Wellcome Collection, London.)

Claes Oldenburg, Floor Cake. 1962. (© 2014 Claes Oldenburg.)

Guillaume is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.