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Preview: States of Mind at the Wellcome Collection

10 February 2016 | Lydia Cooper

The latest part of the Wellcome Collection's States of Mind exhibition explores different states of consciousness, from somnambulism to sleep paralysis, and suggests that many neurological mysteries may remain unsolved for a while.

In his autobiography Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov wrote that ‘the confessions of a synaesthete must sound tedious and pretentious to those who are protected from such leakings and drafts by more solid walls than mine are.’ Nabokov was one of the most famous people with the neurological condition synaesthesia: his own condition was grapheme-colour synaesthesia, which enabled him to see letters and numbers as inherently coloured. Nabokov’s insinuation that the mind is protected by walls, which are durable for ‘normal’ people but riddled with leaks for synaesthetes, creates an image of the mind as an impenetrable fortress and continues a long-standing literary tradition in this vein.

The Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition States of Mind: Tracing the Edges of Consciousness shows that the mind is anything but a fortress with impermeable walls. Our consciousness is vulnerable to a whole host of things, from anaesthetic and sleep paralysis to small goblins with sharp instruments.

The second part of this year-long show at the Wellcome is just as visually impressive as the first. It follows the immensely popular mist installation ‘yellowbluepink’ by artist Ann Veronica Janssens, which was designed to tease our sense of perception, and ran from October - January. The changing programme of contemporary art is twinned with historical artefacts and other objects of interest; the curator Emily Sargent has combined history, literature, psychology and art in order to dissect phenomena such as somnambulism, sleep paralysis and synaesthesia.

The Wellcome’s comparatively new exhibition space is designed to hold longer installations for up to a year. In the case of States of Mind, it allows a variety of themes to be explored from complex angles, as a series of artists will exhibit over the course of the show. Kerry Tribe and Shona Illingworth are due to exhibit in April and July respectively, after the current run of Imogen Stidworthy’s ‘The Whisper Heard’.

Stidworthy’s 2003 work is sectioned off from the main exhibition, enclosed by a thick white curtain. ‘The Whisper Heard’ juxtaposes the language acquisition of a small child with that of a stroke patient with aphasia. The small space resounds with the steady, jarring noises made by the two as they attempt to control and wield language. Both are attempting to repeat the words of a reading from the novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which also explores consciousness: in one scene, the main character is lost and disoriented in a maze of underground tunnels, and is drawn back into consciousness by the acoustic echoes of his uncle’s voice. When he attempts to find the voice, he is knocked unconscious once again.

Whilst Tony (the stroke patient) can understand words, he struggles to speak them and must find synonyms within his lexical range; in contrast, Séverin (the artist’s son) can repeat words with ease but does not know their meaning. The rubber-edged curtains make the atmosphere seem like a clinical experiment, and the experience of listening to the two of them is both engrossing and unsettling: the muttering noises as they sound out words have an incremental effect and fill the entire space.

 

Imogen Stidworthy, 'The Whisper Heard', 2004, installation shot at the Wellcome Collection.

 

The exhibition itself begins with the ‘Science | Soul’ section, which picks out key moments in the history of neuroscience.  The scientist and philosopher Rene Descartes’ belief in dualism - he wrote the first formal idea that the mind and body are separate, res cogitans and res extensa - is outlined in artworks such as Luigi Schiavonetti’s drawing of ‘The Soul hovering over the Body reluctantly parting with Life’, which clearly illustrates mind and body as separate entities.

Meanwhile, Nabokov’s synaesthetic alphabet is recreated by the artist Jean Holabird, who sticks faithfully to his lyrical descriptions of how he perceives letters. This is pretty, but far less satisfying than reading his vivid account of each letter in the autobiography itself.  If the thought of synaesthesia piques the viewer’s interest, they can take a test that matches colours and letters at the exhibition, and learn that some scientists believe that the condition can be taught through the practice of continual association.

 

Luigi Schiavonetti, 'The Soul hovering over the Body reluctantly parting with Life', print after William Blake, © Trustees of the British Museum.

 

The next section, ‘Sleep | Awake’, explores how sleep alters our consciousness and perception. We mostly expect to be inactive and unresponsive during sleep, but some sleep disorders subvert this belief: somnambulists manage to be physically active whilst being in a deep sleep, whereas those who suffer from sleep paralysis find that they cannot move when they wake up, as the release from paralysis is delayed.  

A different kind of controlled sleep is suggested in a Henry Fuseli drawing, which depicts an incubus crouching on a sleeping woman’s chest, a representation of a nightmare. Those who visited the British Library’s Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination exhibition last year will recall that the drawing served as preparation for his frightening oil painting The Nightmare, a popular work that provoked many parodies of the theme. Another account of a nightmare, and a visit from an incubus, can be read in a 1603 edition of Daemonlogie, James I’s 1603 work. It is positioned next to ‘An Essay on the Incubus, or Nightmare’ (1753), from the Wellcome’s own collection, which is thought to be one of the earliest medical examinations of the nightmare.  The author, John Bond, believed that nightmares originated in the consciousness as a result of ‘immoderate behaviour’ and irresponsible excess.

 

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781. © Trustees of the British Museum.

 

The third section (‘Language | Memory) revolves around language development and how it is linked with memory. It includes one of the best parts of the exhibition: A. R.  Hopwood’s ‘False Memory Archive: Crudely Erased Adults (Lost in the Mall)’. This work references the research of Elizabeth Loftus, who was able to implant a false memory of getting lost in a mall in the minds of volunteers. In his piece, Hopwood replicates this idea using fake CCTV footage of a shopping centre, in which figures appear and disappear. In the stills from the videotape, which emits a sinister orange glow, you can see lost figures emerging into view. Those who have seen the documentary Making a Murderer will be well-acquainted with the chilling confession scene in which the 16 year-old Brendan Dassey, who has intellectual disabilities, is given what some people interpret as a false memory, and Hopwood’s work plays with similar ideas.

There is also the chance to read selected submissions from Hopwood’s False Memory Archive, including ‘I remember running away from the hospital as a newborn baby’, and ‘As a young child I remember lifting my feet at the top of the stairs in the morning and gliding downstairs without touching the steps.’ This odd assortment of half-formed, unrealistic memories will resonate with everyone who possesses an implanted childhood memory, the kind that you know cannot be true on a cerebral level, but which feels impossibly vivid and true.

 

A.R. Hopwood, False Memory Archive: Crudely Erased Adults (Lost in the Mall), 2012-13. Courtesy of the artist.

 

The final part of States of Mind, ‘Being | Not Being, looks at different states of disordered consciousness, from the brain activity of patients in vegetative states to the use of general anaesthetic. Aya Ben Ron’s five-minute film Still Under Treatment (2005) focuses on seven patients at the precise moment that they lose consciousness under general anaesthetic: the effect of her study is unsettling and thought-provoking, as we watch the patients slip away into a dreamless state.

 

Aya Ben Ron, Still Under Treatment, 2005. Still from the film, courtesy Aya Ben Ron/the Wellcome Collection.

 

The Wellcome exhibition proves why the subject of consciousness has been a source of endless fascination for artists, writers and scientists. Although the show divides consciousness into loose categories, it is with the proviso that these are not finite, and the knowledge that we still can’t pin down the reasons behind many liminal and disordered mental states. It demonstrates the unending variety of ways that humans have conceptualised consciousness, from Richard Tennant Cooper’s 1912 drawing of small demons attacking someone’s mind with surgical instruments (a representation of chloroform’s effects) to the neurologist’s Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s diagrams mapping out neurons.

In his introduction to States of Mind, Mark Haddon explains that neuroscience has solved the ‘easy’ questions about consciousness, from how the brain performs to how we make judgments, but argues that we are no closer to unpicking the deeper mysteries of how the mind functions. The Wellcome Collection’s exhibition follows in the same vein, provoking many questions about the ambiguities of consciousness without giving any real answers. This is encapsulated in the collection of Francis Crick’s papers, in which he attempts to disentangle the unsolved question of how an objective brain can produce the subjective experience of consciousness. Crick never solved the problem - although he grappled with the issue until his death in 2004 - but it is fascinating to explore his complex thought process in this exhibition.

 

The exhibition is free and runs from 4 February - 16 October 2016. More information can be found on the Wellcome Collection’s website.

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