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Electricity: The Spark of Life at the Wellcome Collection

The Wellcome Collection's latest exhibition focuses on the so-called silent servant - electricity.

‘It’s alive! It’s alive!’ The sound of thunderous bolts, cracks, currents, and this famous line from 1931 film adaption of Frankenstein ring through the exhibition rooms, live with electrical power itself. Electricity: The Spark of Life sheds light on one of the most important components of modern life, one that we so often take for granted. Far from merely being a science lesson, this latest exhibition from the Wellcome Collection explores the mythical properties of electricity, the scientific experiments that contributed to its development as well as revealing some of its most bizarre uses.

The exhibition is loosely chronological, charting the development of electricity from the widespread belief of its divine properties to the advanced uses of electricity we’re familiar with today. In typical Wellcome Collection style, it includes an array of weird and wonderful exhibits that help us to make sense of some of life’s most difficult topics. A recurring theme in the exhibition is, quite surprisingly, frogs. The first exhibit is an amber frog from Roman times that is believed to be one of the first known manifestations of static electricity - sparks were created if you rubbed the amber frog on to animal fur. Widely believed to be a symbol of life and reproduction, frogs helped to elucidate the life-changing abilities of electricity. We see complex scientific tools used by Italian scientist Luigi Galvani for his groundbreaking biological experiments, in which he accidentally electrocuted a dead frog and realised that the electric current made the frog’s legs twitch. Irish artist John Gerrard’s X.laevis Spacelab depicts a frog suspended in the air in slow motion on a huge screen, a response to Galvani’s innovations that puts the dissected frog at centre stage.

Alexander Bassano Photographic Studios, Woman modelling the latest permed hairstyles for the hairdresser Eugène Limited 1923. © Museum of London
Just as Galvani’s experiments created the semblance of life in a dead frog, one of the most interesting thematic contrasts that the exhibition posits is electricity’s ability to cause both life and death, and the unnerving liminal space it inhabits between these two extremes. From Frankenstein’s creation of a monster in the 1931 film through to a chilling image of an electric chair used in American prisons, the exhibition explores the terrifying and largely mystified idea that whilst electricity can create life, it can just as easily take it away. It’s an unsettling force that constantly hangs above us, both immediately obvious and hidden from our minds. Portugese artist João Penalva’s arresting photograph (Looking up at Osaka – Minamisemba cho-me) of a bright orange sunset with the electrical wires of a pylon in the foreground focuses our attention on the network of lines and wires that we have become so used to on the landscape.

Photo credit: João Penalva, Looking up in Osaka - Minamisemba 1 cho-me, 2005-2006. Image courtesy Simon Lee Gallery © João Penalva.

One of the most interesting elements of the exhibition is the way in which the aesthetic and kinetic possibilities of electricity have been scrutinised by artists. Modernist photographer Man Ray’s stunning photographs Le Monde and Le Souffle Electricité were commissioned by the Paris electricity board to encourage its use amongst residents of the city. Ray used electrical appliances and cast their shadows on to photographic paper, creating surreal images that make toasters resemble moons and lamps look like spider’s webs. It seems odd for an electrical board to commission experimental work from a modernist artist, but these pieces certainly emphasise the abstract beauty and endless possibilities of electricity. A similarly experimental and stand out piece is Camille Henrot’s January 2017 Horoscope, specially commissioned for Electricity by the Wellcome. Consisting of a zoetrope radiating harsh strobe lighting, paper butterflies and frogs crafted from energy bills rotate whilst disembodied hands spark a lighter to light an energy bill. The inventive paradox of this pre-electrical animating device and the thematic focus on the endless consumption of electricity emphasises the fascinating performative qualities of electricity, and it is easily the most thoughtful and compelling exhibit in the exhibition.  

Electricity: The Spark of Life will make you think about the processes and intricate mechanisms at work next time you charge your phone or boil a kettle. It’s an exhibition buzzing with movements, networks and energy that successfully focuses our attention to one of life’s most prevalent yet often forgotten forces.
Electricity: The Spark of Life runs 23 February 2017 - 25 June 2017 at the Wellcome Collection. Entrance is free. Find out more here.