States of Mind

11 April 2016

States of Mind: Tracing the Edges of Consciousness
04 February — 16 October 2016
The Wellcome Collection
by Chris Hough


LONDON — This exhibition explores the range of experiences, which emerge, from the edges of our consciousness. As the accompanying leaflet states, ‘If we try to pin down the exact nature of consciousness, it becomes problematic.’ The changing show of artefacts, installation and film footage is subdivided into categories, such as Science and Soul, Language and memory and Being and not Being. This immediately suggests that the science may not be perfect or at least conclusive, and the artistic elements may or may not be either produced by artists or indeed take the form of conventional artworks.

As with many previous Wellcome Collection shows, such as Dirt: the filthy reality of everyday life or Death, a Self Portrait the commissioning, production or exhibiting of artworks, helps weave complex, and emotive narratives in explanation of some of the inescapable phenomena of our existence. What better way to explore uncomfortable subjects than the inventive juxtaposition of medical printout with Victorian fantasy illustration or diagrams made by patients, displayed as artworks?

The Wellcome Trust is a bio-medical research trust and charitable foundation founded in 1936. It is dedicated to the improvement of human health and is situated on the busy Euston Road in London. It owns one of the most extraordinary library collections in the UK, which it is able to draw upon for material to supplement its ambitious exhibitions. Such an institution could easily put on tedious, or well meaning academic, or over-didactic displays, but the fact that it has become something of a pilgrimage for London artists amongst, its many visitors, is testament to the reality, that what you might find here is often unexpected and deeply engaging to look at. The Trust has commissioned some of the more experimental and innovative contemporary artists for it’s collaborations and commissions in its quest for new ways to present it’s themes.

The exhibition space does not lend itself to single installations or stand-alone artworks, as it is part of a busy institution and many of it’s adjoining spaces are multi-functional. What you often get is a collection of cabinets and purpose built display units, which give the feel of something between a museum and a library, and when artefacts are placed on the floor or wall outside of these cabinets, they often work as a dialogue with the other exhibits, like a museum of curiosities.

In the first room, the 1904 spidery ink drawings of scientist, Santiago Ramon y Cajal, who identified the role of neurons in the nervous system, represent glial cells and are apparently, key to maintaining the right environment for neurons. They have the appearance of the automatic ink drawings of later surrealist artists, but in reality are faithfully reproduced from microscopic images. Herein lies the beauty of Emily Sargent’s curatorship. This is a scientist making drawings of great sensitivity in order to visualise and explain his discovery. The surprising transition as you pass along to Jean Holabird’s Illustrations of colour Alphabets which depict Vladimir Nabakov’s concept of synaesthesia, or ‘coloured hearing‘ and William Blake’s image of the soul hovering above the body, are not too hard a leap of imagination to make. It is also appropriate to position Nabakov opposite the writings of Kandinsky as both not only represent the complex 20th century pre-occupation with trying to find relationships between the senses and perception, but originate from a strong Russian pre-occupation with philosophy, science, art and folklore, which continued into the Soviet Space Age and beyond, where voyages into the unknown constitute far more in the human mind than simply the science of getting there.

The show goes on to explore the state of altered consciousness, that sleep produces and the prostrate figure Somnambulist by Goshka Macuga lies motionless, almost larger than life in his clothing from another yet unspecific era, across the gallery floor as if about to rise from his sleep. We are reminded in a nearby cabinet that in Robert Weine’s 1920 film, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, (Caligari is director of a psychiatric hospital) the sinister doctor is able to control the Somnambulist and direct him to commit murder. We are further reminded in a newspaper cutting of a case where murder was committed in real life by a somnambulist. This section also deals with different stages of sleep and explores the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, whereby the paralysis that sleep induces is not always released when the sleeper awakes.

Particularly touching is the section on language and memory, where we are asked to consider the particular sense of being who we are as individuals, both through our normal life experiences and also what happens when the brain may be damaged through injury or illness. Part of the exhibit explores what it is like to be partially or completely non-verbal. We see an extraordinary series of maps created by children in a residential centre for autism, in the 1960’s under the supervision of psychoanalyst Fernand Deligny. The maps constitute the children’s movements and gestures being transcribed into diagrammatic form, described as, ‘wander lines’. They have a close resemblance to the performance –related drawings of Joseph Beuys, which were executed between 1936 and 1972, but carry none of Beuys’ fluidity and elegance and are more raw and emphatic.

Invaluable also, are AR Hopwood’s photographic images, reproduced from his False Memory Archive. They serve to remind us that our memory can sometimes fool us by creating false impressions, as our brains fill in information gaps from our personal experience and provide a distorted picture of the past. His 2012-13 image, Lost in the Mall provides an internalised experience of someone lost in a shopping mall and close examination reveals that other people have been erased and the lone individual is concerned only with his or her own reality in negotiating this overwhelming space. (A.R. Hopwood is an Artist and Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow.)

The final section, Being and not Being, is dedicated to disorders of consciousness, either from disease or trauma or from the voluntary entry into reversible coma, through anaesthesia. I watched Shift a short film by Aya Ben Ron, which shows the lives of patients in various states of clinical unawareness, and although it is shown in a separate space off the main exhibition, it certainly exerted a powerful and melancholy influence on my response to this exhibition. The day-to-day workings of hospital ward containing, presumably brain–damaged people is shown without commentary. What is noticeable is the everyday routine and conversation of the hospital staff, going on around these individuals. Patients are spoken to in a matter of fact way sometimes, as if they were fully conscious. We are left to imagine what level of consciousness these patients might or might not experience and the contrast between staff and patients is poignant.

So why do so many artists visit what is primarily an exhibition about consciousness in a medical and philosophical sense? I think it is because there are no other shows quite able to present this level of insight. The range of material which Wellcome is able to draw upon is almost unparalleled in this sector and the visitor is given a series of leads and possibilities which make you want to go away and study, or respond in some way. It is almost a stimulus for the artwork you have yet to attempt. Clearly, the themes of levels of consciousness and personal awareness are core to many art practices. But also experiences on the edge of perception, whether through choice or through illness, provide us here with a mirror of ourselves and what we, or those close to us may come to experience. I loved the interface between the different disciplines of art, science and philosophy, because perhaps one single approach to such an intangible idea as that of human consciousness, does not go far enough to explain the complexity of our relationship with it.