Oddly Enough

London show explores skin as human body's frontier

LONDON (Reuters) - “Visitors may find some images in this exhibition disturbing,” reads a sign at the entrance to the Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition: “Skin.”

“Skin” tracks attitudes towards the human body’s largest organ since the 15th century from scientific, artistic and historical perspectives.

The exhibition is divided into four parts: objects, marks, impressions, and after-life. There is also a Skin Lab, which looks at recent developments in skin science.

A black and white photograph of a patient in a Parisian hospital is the first piece in the exhibition. Running the length of the patient’s back is a giant scar.

“This photograph sums up a lot of the underlying themes in the exhibition, first and foremost the exploration of skin as a physical and metaphorical frontier between the inside and outside of the body,” co-curator of the exhibition Lucy Shanahan told Reuters.

“Another thing that recurs throughout the exhibition is this strange paradox between something horrific and something beautiful,” she added.

For early modern anatomists, skin was superfluous. Figures in 16th century anatomical diagrams were drawn without skin, or participating in the removal of their own skin, as if undressing.

“The illustrations were obviously intended for medical purposes, and yet they have this incredible artistry to them,” said Shanahan.

“Marks,” the second section of the exhibition, explores the idea of skin as a document of a person’s experiences.

In “Medical Heirlooms,” artist Tamsin Van Essen re-creates the texture of various skin conditions - psoriasis, the affects of syphilis and acne - on 17th and 18th century apothecary jars.

“They’re really about challenging our prejudices towards skin disease... what’s really intriguing is that you’re drawn towards them as beautiful objects, but once you discover what they are, your feelings towards them might shift,” Shanahan commented.

“Healing of Wounds,” an educational video for medical undergraduates in the 1960s, is “not for the faint-hearted,” says Shanahan. “In fact, there have been several people fainting whilst watching it,” she adds.

The film shows a layer of skin being scraped off a patient’s thigh for grafting onto a wound. “A lot of people have mentioned graters and kebabs,” Shanahan said.

Pieces of tattooed human skin from the 19th century are on display beside a case devoted to the Maori tradition of tattooing.

Ageing is also examined through photography and art.

Two close-up films, one of perspiration and the other of spots being squeezed, are on show. At such high magnification, the subject of the footage is not immediately clear.

“It’s like looking at a strange lunar landscape with small creatures burrowing their way out,” said Shanahan.

Also in the collection is a small book: a treatise on virginity bound in human skin. “It is bound with a piece of female skin, tanned by myself with sumac” reads an inscription inside the front cover.

The Peruvian mummy in the “after-life” room shows the durability of skin, even hundreds of years after death.

“Looking at the skin itself, it is utterly remarkable how strong and resilient it is,” Shanahan noted.

Hanging on a rail in the Skin Lab are garments from designer clothing range SkinBag. The waistcoats and jackets, which are made from skin-like, rubber-based materials encourage visitors to think of clothing as a second skin.

Pharmaceutical pioneer and avid collector Henry Wellcome’s vast collection was the starting point for the exhibition.

“The last decade has revealed a burgeoning interest and fascination with human skin, particularly among philosophers, writers, artists and designers,” said Shanahan in a statement. “So there couldn’t be a better time to get under the surface of this subject.”

Editing by Paul Casciato