Neuroscience is a subject area of science that provides a rich source of inspiration to artists. After all, it is here where scientists study consciousness, where we explore our sense of Self. It is also where we confront the potentially devastating consequences of a brain that isn’t operating as it should. In other words, many of the big questions of neuroscience are also the big questions that relate to what exactly it means to be human. And that calls for a cultural response.
English printmaker Susan Aldworth is at the forefront of artists working side by side with neuroscientists, and her new show—Transience, in which she made prints directly from human brain tissue—takes her work to a new level. During a recent Q&A at the GV Art Gallery, Aldworth explained how the project was a natural, but unexpected, extension of her work on notions of Self and the interface between body and mind.
Aldworth was one of a group of artists invited to observe a brain dissection at the Parkinson’s UK Brain Bank at Hammersmith Hospital. She asked doctors if she might be able to hold a brain and this became a transformative experience: for the first time she touched the ‘thing’ that she had been exploring for so many years. Susan recalled that she hadn’t expected it be such a visceral experience, and that she suddenly connected with the brain both as an object—very strange, unexpectedly heavy, and very cold—and, for a split-second, as the embodiment of a real human being. It was at this point that Aldworth saw slices of brain lying on a metal tray and, as a print-maker, found a source of inspiration.
I found Transience a brave and moving body of work. Although fascinated by neuroscience and working with colleagues who are former neuroscientists, I am very much a layperson in this field. I looked at Susan’s images with wonder. While brains are heavy, fatty, slippery and cold objects, her images have an otherworldly glow. In some senses, they aren’t much different from scientific images—in that they are documents of the brain—and it could be argued that she is continuing in Da Vinci’s tradition of anatomical art (he also printed from a human heart). What makes Aldworth’s prints so moving is that they are simultaneously documents of the brain as an object, and also uniquely unconventional and respectful portraits of people who lived through degenerative brain diseases.
Transience demonstrates what can arise from artist/scientist collaborations: Aldworth worked closely with the Parkinson’s UK Brain Bank at Hammersmith Hospital, and this collaboration was essential to her executing the artwork. Her partners on the project were Professor David Dexter, who manages the brain bank and master printmaker Nigel Oxley. In a conversation with Dexter, she recently recalled the huge responsibility she felt printing directly from the brains of real people who had been looking to the future when they decided to donate their brains to science. Dexter had to travel with the brains at all times, and Aldworth and Oxley had an intense two days to make the work, which (as it turns out) where filled with happy accidents, which resulted in a more varied body of work than had been anticipated at the start.
In this collaboration, Susan did not seek to answer questions about how the brain functions, but to ask them. Paired with her older work, it is clear that Aldworth is engaging in creative ways with Descartes’s mind/body problem, and tackling that pesky problem of how our sense of self emerges from our very material brains. Transience highlights the brain as a physical object—so much so that you can actually print from it—but it is impossible to ‘escape’ the people behind them.
David Dexter also argues that Transience, while fulfilling one purpose as thought-provoking art, fulfils another as a back door to neuroscience and provides an opening to a dialogue of the sometimes-touchy issue of brain donation. Researchers studying Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases require real brain samples, which means that real people—who are facing a difficult end of life but are looking to a future where a cure for their condition might exist—need to donate their brains for this work to continue. Perhaps artwork, such as this, can help navigate this tricky territory.
In the catalogue for the exhibition, Susan reflects on the narratives that exist regarding our sense of self, particularly when it comes to a medical diagnosis. There is the visual appearance of the situation, the physical reality of the situation, the scientific explanation, and the lived personal experience. Transience elegantly navigates this territory, and I think it suggests that we shouldn’t be afraid of exploring what that wonderful thing inside our skulls is and how it makes us who we are.
Transience by Susan Aldworth is on display at GV Art until 20 July 2013. Another project by Aldworth, The Portrait Anatomised, is on display at the National Portrait Gallery until 1 September 2013.