“I am both in my mind and out of my brain”
“You can look INTO my brain but you will never find me.”
SUSAN ALDWORTH, 2006
I have been thinking a lot about the title of the exhibition Landscapes of the Mind. Contemporary neuroscience talks of “mapping the mind” — it aims to chart the neural infrastructure of the human mind. This knowledge is important for our understanding of what it is to be human. But whilst a map of the mind suggests the idea of a landscape if we are talking about minds in general, it changes into a kind of portraiture as soon as we consider the map or landscape of the mind of someone in particular. This artistic metaphor where landscape refers to the objective mapping of the mind and portraiture references the subjective SELF reflects the problems with scientific investigation into the nature of consciousness which is by definition a subjective experience.
This transition between landscape and portrait is reflected in my works in Landscapes of the Mind. Contemporary scanning technologies mean that the human brain is visually permeable as never before. We can watch our own brains functioning live on a monitor and visualize various forms of activity in the brain. But what is a brain scan? Brain scans are precise scientific photographs but they are incomplete records of an individual. They seem to promise to disclose something of our very essence as people as they open our minds for visual inspection. But they disappoint on this front on their own. They are inherently reductionist – breaking down the self into its component parts without offering an explanation of the whole. They offer a landscape of the mind when it is a portrait that we want.
I am fascinated by the ambiguity of brain scans: the gap between what they do show (the physical structure and function of the brain) and what they don’t – the SELF. Brain scans have a specific meaning within a medical and scientific context, but their meaning changes at the moment we consider them as images of an individual person, that is, once we assume that in the brain scans we see something of the person, their identity. The cultural significance of brain scans outside a medical context is hard to fully appreciate as it is constantly growing, but in my work I use them to signpost subjective experience and to reference the fact that neuroscience is constantly challenging our notions of identity. For me they are a visual link with the interior self, the potent soup of brain and consciousness which is central to defining who we are. This is why they are so much part of my work.
Contemporary neuroscience is supported by extraordinary brain imaging techniques (MRI, PET, CT and EEG) so that it is now possible to localize and visualize various forms of activity in the brain. My work responds to, and uses this contemporary imagery, to build up an alternative and more complete picture of someone by referring to the dimensions of self which reside inside the body. With this approach I aim to give insight into identity by blending personal (subjective) and scientific (objective) narratives. I hope to breach the barriers between the philosophical and scientific discourses through images that reveal previously unseen aspects of the self but which, without their individual narratives, have an impersonal quality. I hope my work challenges conventional expectations of portraiture.
- Susan Aldworth
Above images: Susan Aldworth, Location Drawing 2005; Brainscape 21, 2006; Elizabeth; Brainscape 5, 2006; Cogito Ergo Sum 3a, 2006. Courtesy the Artist.