THIS IS A VOICE – The Wellcome Collection

I enjoy singing little rhythms I make up, I often whistle and I talk to myself out loud without realising, I have a tendency to mimic accents I’m exposed to over a relatively short period of time and I talk so much that I often suffer from throat infections when meeting new people. I had never thought of the sociological, anthropological and psychological implications of all of these small, mundane facts about myself until I had the chance to see the Wellcome Collections early summer exhibition ‘THIS IS A VOICE.’


My lasting impression of this show is one of refreshment. Finally, an exhibition that does not showcase an array of impressive (to come by) artworks under the guise of education, instead THIS IS A VOICE has education, realisation and appreciation as its core intention for the viewers. The spectrum of objects, images and experiences, curated by the talented Barbara Rodriguez Munoz, guides viewers section by section through a journey that explores the origins, uses and afflictions of the voice and much more. The highlights of this show, of which there are many, were installations by Macus Coates and Imogen Stidworthy, documentary work from Louis Sarno and Katarina Zdjelar along with the specimen of Marianne Harland’s larynx and trachea affected by tuberculosis.

Imogen Stidworthy’s installation ‘Castrato’ (2012-2016)

Marcus Coates’ installation ‘Dawn Chorus’ is one of the first works in the exhibition and it successfully transforms viewers from talkative gallery goers into experience absorbing subjects. Visitors unsuspectingly enter a dark space with multiple monitors situated at different heights enclosing them into a mysterious centre. Disorientated by the transition into darkness, at first it seems that the installations audio is coming from another part of the exhibition as the bird song is so disconnected from the glitch-y mundane, human, scenes being shown on the screens that separate the dark. In fact, the birdsong is coming from the performers occupying each banal landscape inside the screens, highlighting the eerie similarity between the vocal capabilities of birds and humans.

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Marcus Coates’ installation ‘Dawn Chorus'(2007)

Unlike most large-scale exhibitions, all sound and video work were kept to manageable lengths (excluding Ted Kotcheffs 90 minute film; The human voice). Living in an era where 10-second videos and gifs litter our social home pages and 30-second adverts dominate our TV screens, it is not surprising that our attention spans have been ruined. This is something that I think all galleries should be aware of, no matter what the subject of the exhibit. Most importantly, what this visually hungry populous wants is the whole experience, from start to finish, right now, or nothing at all. This is something that ‘THIS IS A VOICE’ accommodated, with most looping clips being only 2-3 minutes long, making difficult to comprehend ideas much easier to access and swallow.


The programme that accompanied the exhibition is also something worth a honourable mention. Containing all the introductions to each of the exhibitions sections, images and useful descriptions of every piece, the programme allows visitors to engage fully in the experience of the exhibition rather than feel the need to take pictures or notes, because everything is already recorded for us in the best possible quality.

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THIS IS A VOICE – installation view

For me, this is what every exhibition should be about; using an array of objects and images to penetrate a single subject. Art works cannot be solely responsible for doing this as they are often subjective, instead artworks should be used to show how scientific fact and experience can be interpreted and shared with an audience. Informative, exciting and relevant to every soul on earth, ‘This is a voice’ taught me; how the voice originally evolved ‘for the purpose of song and social bonding rather than for information exchange’, that accents can be removed and manipulated, about the voice in my head that translates symbols into sounds, and a whole new language.

Performing for the Camera

If you have studied any form of visual arts beyond the restrictive curriculum of A-levels, it is likely that you will have seen half of the images on display in this exhibition already. Between documentation of Yves Klein ‘s ‘Anthropometries of the Blue Period’ process and Cindy Sherman’s ‘Untitled Film Stills’, everything you would expect from a major Tate show, is exactly where you’d expect it to be. The familiarity of the earlier works on display was not detrimental to the exhibit, instead the amount of works was. In an era where we are being drowned in an over abundance of imagery, it is quite a lot to ask of viewers to engage with 14 rooms worth of photographic images and their stories. Essentially, this was a historical review of performance art and it’s documentation, rather than the effect of rising photographic technologies on the general populations behaviours (as I had initially, obviously foolishly, thought it would be). This is not to say that the exhibition itself wasn’t relevant, as instead it displayed the transformation of the camera from documenter of performance to creator of performance. This transition, in hindsight, does in itself demonstrate and reflect the change in societies behaviour towards the camera in the same time frame. Where previously performances were captured (almost haphazardly) so that they did not dissolve into memories, now it is more common that performances are staged only for the photographic outcome, overlooking the spontaneous experience factor of the earlier images.

Yves Klein and a model during the performance ‘Anthropometry’ (1960)

For me the most exciting work on display was Martin Parr’s ‘Auto Portraits’, reminiscent of ‘meme culture’ the brightly coloured array of prints was a welcome sight after the hoards of very serious, black and white, high brow art images in the galleries before. Despite its humorous façade, this collection reveals something very interesting about the world in itself. The series of garish images were taken by street photographers and in photo booths in popular locations all over the world, but it is difficult to find anything representing the ‘culture’ each is from. Instead, the interchangeable format of each image exposes a worldwide commonality; tourism everywhere is simply a cheap thrill of kitsch aestheticism and ‘proof’ of experience.

Martin Parr – Wolverhampton, England (2012) from ‘Autoportraits’

As the exhibition drew to its close, the remaining images were performances solely staged for the camera, bringing us to reflect on the unconscious modern day performances documented on every users Facebook newsfeed. So, quite fittingly, the exhibition ends on work by Amalia Ulman. This consists of prints taken from her Instagram page and some tablets that allow you to browse through all her Instagram posts. As a series the images uploaded to Instagram document the narrative of an innocent young girl moving to LA, her down fall into drugs and later her recovery and newfound appreciation for brunching. This new form of online art is something I, along with many other young artists, am getting excited about. Earlier this year the a famous snap-chat user Andrea Russett’s online following was used by director Hannah Macpherson to create the first snap chat film: . Although this is a horror film and the final product is not near any league belonging to the work of Ulman, I feel that it is still a better use of online platforms ability to exploit unsuspecting viewers. My problem with Ulman’s ‘Excellences & Perfections’ series is that the Instagram following had no idea that they had been duped because what she posted is, and intentionally so, what we can find on a large majority of Instagram accounts. Although I greatly admire Ulman’s use of social media as a place of performance, as I feel it is now a much more realistic way of critiquing the world than in a gallery, the work is so subtle that it almost doesn’t exist.

From Amalia Ulman’s Instagram series ‘Excellences and Perfections’

Ultimately this show took me on an educational journey through the historical use of the camera in art, which was beneficial for any art lover. My critique, however, is that it probably only extends to those who have a rather extensive knowledge about art and art history already. This is a shame as with the rise of smart phone cameras and the world dominating ‘selfie culture’, this is an exhibition that should have been able to inform, excite and interest anyone wandering the streets of London.