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Brainstorm: Investigating the Brain
Through Art and Science

By Tomas Hirst



Helen Pynor, Headache, C-type photo on Duratran, face-mounted glass (2010)

Science is often claimed as one of the major religions of our age. While many in the scientific community strongly resist such comparisons increasingly their discoveries force us to question our understanding of ourselves.

If science and religion do have similar qualities, however, it is perhaps best seen in the art inspired by both. Operating rooms may lack the grandeur of soaring cathedral spires but both have the power to fascinate and terrify in equal measure. And in both, many would claim, miraculous events do happen.

To the layman the notion of a surgeon operating on the brain of a still conscious patient is about as awe inspiring as anything one can imagine. Yet it also begs the question of why it is that our physical bodies are able to inspire such profound emotions and how these visceral experiences can be shared with the broader public.

Travelling to GV Art Gallery in London to see Brainstorm, an exhibition that promised to investigate the brain through art and science, I was reminded of the phrase from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “What a piece of work is a man!”

Robert Devcic, the founder of the gallery, has undoubtedly set himself a challenge. As with many sciart exhibitions there is a fine line to tread between detail and interpretation in bringing the worlds of brain surgery and neuroscience to a wider audience.

For my money Devcic is rewarded for his ambition. On entering the exhibition it is difficult not to be struck by the haunting silvered-bronze of Annie Cattrell’s From Within. The sculpture’s halved brain gives a stark physicality to the subject, while the web of interconnected veins that criss-cross the work suggests fragility in its intricateness.

Annie Cattrell, From Within, silvered bronze (2010)

Given the complexity of the subject, it is pleasing to discover an exhibition featuring work by seven artists whose works suggest the depth to which the brain can be considered both subject and object of art.

Indeed, in order for this subject to be driven forward these types of collective exhibitions will surely prove crucial. Not only does Brainstorm bring together a group of artists already working within the field (a fact that alone suggests the momentum behind the theme) but it gives the viewing public the opportunity to see and respond to the breadth of ideas underpinning it.

This impression is only strengthened by the variety of both interpretations and media brought to bear on the theme. Striking examples include Susan Aldworth’s lenticulars, a medium I had not encountered before in this context but one that befits the subject matter excellently. The image, which shifts as you move around it, captures the impression of a synapse firing and gives colour to the idea of a birth of a thought.

At its best art can help to resolve the problem of expressing what is for many a raw personal experience that they can have difficulty expressing to others. While there are a few pieces in the exhibition that sway more towards the physical than the philosophical, there is plenty here to get the mind working.

Images such as Andrew Carnie’s superimposition of a cross-section of a brain with the rings of a tree have lingered along with a sense of discomfort that comes of being challenged about your preconceived ideas. While intellectually the works certainly offer their challenges, the overriding impact of Brainstorm is the aesthetic beauty of the responses.

What Devcic has succeeded in doing is creating an environment inviting enough to draw people’s attention and encourage them to confront the work on its own terms. That alone is no small feat.

Susan Aldworth, Brainnscape 17, etching and aquatint (2010)

Where there is room to expand is in raising awareness of these types of exhibitions and promoting an active engagement with the scientific community, whose work is almost as much on show here as the art.

Anyone expecting all the grotesqueness of a Victorian operating room will be disappointed. Just as the surgeon has to guide his endoscope through the tiny passageways of the brain this is a subject best treated with nuance and precision.

Tomas Hirst is journalist and playwright based in London. His work has appeared in the Guardian, The Times and Prospect Magazine.

Brainstorm: Investigating the Brain Through Art and Science
3rd December 2010 – 22nd January 2011
GV Art Gallery, 49 Chiltern Street, Marylebone, London W1U 6LY


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