Cerebral and worthy of attention

Jenny Doe reviews the 'States of Mind' exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London.

This exhibition promises to examine ‘the universal, yet mysterious, topic of conscious experience’ – and indeed this first instalment of a changing programme does so, and makes for a fascinating visit.

Beginning with a section on Science and Soul, we find fragile early 20th century pen and ink drawings of glial cells and axon terminal buttons. Jean Holabird has made charming illustrations of Nobokov’s Synaesthete’s Alphabet, outlined in his autobiography – ‘Speak Memory’ – for example M is a fold of pink flannel; and a video trains you to perceive in the same way, by coupling colours and letters, a sort of mischievous anti-Stroop test.

Visually underwhelming, but fascinating as historical documentation, is Louis Darget’s 19th century silver print ‘spiritual photography’ made by pressing unexposed photographic plates to the foreheads of sitters in deep concentration. Wander Lines drawings collected by Fernand Deligny are easy to pass by, until you realise they are visual maps drawn by non verbal autistic children in the community he set up in the 1960’s, as a way of telling about the pattern of their daily routine. Francis Crick’s plasticine neuro-anatomical models appear childlike – but when you study the companion notes, and sections of manuscript you learn that following his discovery of DNA, it was his work on solving the puzzle of conscious awareness which pre-occupied him for the rest of his life.

In the Sleep and Awake section, the highlight for me was Goshka Macuga’s Somnambulist, a life-sized prone figure of Cesare the Miraculous, from the 1928 film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Beautifully lit, with pallid face and gothic hair, like a young Lou Reed, you got the sense that you could perceive his shallow breathing, and the uncanny feeling that he might wake at any moment from his 23-year sleep. This is made all the more unnerving by the ambient audio accounts of consciousness during sleep paralysis – ‘everything horrible, disgusting or terrifying in the physical or moral world’.

In the Language and Memory section, Imogen Stidworthy’s The Whisper Hand installation is a moving juxtaposition of a young boy reading in parallel with his aphasic grandfather, groping for words. A dendritic memory map becomes painfully meaningful when you pay attention to the explanation that it is drawn by nurse Claire, who suffers from severe antero- and retro-grade amnesia and prosopagnosia. And Mary Kelly’s 1975 Post-Partum Document slate inscriptions subtly outline the emergence of her son’s individual conscious self, but it needed the exhibition notes to alert me to her own sense of loss at her growing separation from him.

It has to be said that the museum shop had more visual impact than the whole of this exhibition. Perhaps a wall of schoolchildren’s expressionistic illustrations of their dreams might have added more optical appeal. And reading a written account – for example David Sedaris, on the experience of emerging from sedation after a colonoscopy, in his essay The Happy Place – offers more insight and evocation than the videos of patients waking from anaesthesia in the Being and Not Being section.

Cerebral in a literal sense, the information and insights provided at this exhibition achieve its original promise. But, the domination by input from philosophers and historians of neuroscience, whose input into a static exhibition, despite some good video content, sometimes struggles to rival a decent TV documentary such as David Eagleman’s The Brain. So in the other sense of the word, ‘Tracing the edges of consciousness’ is very cerebral – but rewards careful attention spent on understanding the exhibits, and might well be the experience that turns someone on to studying psychology.

States of Mind: Tracing the Edges of Consciousness runs from 4 February to 16 October 2016. See also our preview for links to work by some of the exhibitors.

- See also our review of ‘Tibet’s Secret Temple’.

- Reviewed by Jenny Doe, who is a clinical psychologist in Luton.

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