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The Woven Brain


“Our eyes may see images, but our brains interpret the visual world and generate cognitive and emotional responses to the visual input from the eyes.”

These words written by Curator Katie Price and Psychology Professor Betty Zimmerberg peaked my interest, inspiring me to be an enthusiastic part of this extraordinary show. It is not only the work in Landscapes of the Mind: Contemporary Artists Contemplate the Brain that is important but the collaboration of thoughts between disciplines that began in Professor Zimmerberg’s class has continued to bring others in. I am very thankful for all of the professors and students that I have met during my installation and symposium and for their comments and contributions. My participation has brought back many memories of the most powerful and personal aspects of my work and personality.

Before there was A Woman’s Brain there was The Moon. Made out of window screen and straight pins, The Moon hangs out about two feet from the wall and is lit by a theater light that focuses a shadow on the wall. The shadow looks like the cellular patterns of the body.

As a young artist I tried to find a place for sculpture. Like the moon and the ice landscape of Lake Erie in the winter, I imagined sculpture to be in the middle of an appearing and disappearing object. I set out to find subjects that our culture had emotional attachments to but no real knowledge of. Art seemed to reside in the space of the undead, the space between experience and memory, between the space of life and death. To me, the brain is a mysterious planet, with two hemispheres, up there in your head, where you can not reach it or touch it or really know what it does. Like the moon it has strange powers over your body and soul.

My father was a doctor, a cardiovascular surgeon. He was from a generation unafraid to speculate on what might become of the future and he backed up his theories with bizarre and visually detailed information about the body and the minds influence upon it.  To him the body was something to be opened, to be studied, to be cured, marvel at and cherished.

I came from a large family of eight children and as we ate dinner it sometimes seemed that the human body had been laid out for us to examine; first by jokes, managed by table manners and a concern for our growing brains – and then – the silent stare of deep green eyes, reflecting the open heart; closing slowly, then and there, into a sleeping giant.

One day, when I was about 10 or 11 he told me that a woman’s brain would evolve beyond that of a man’s. I asked him why — he said it was because of its structure and flexibility. This made perfect sense since on an episode of Star Trek, “The Trial of Christopher Pike,” there was a planet of only women, with huge brains that could telecommunicate and create illusions for human beings. When I was young, it was common knowledge that we only used 7 or 10 or 15 percent of the brain. I wondered what we did with the rest and imagined that intuition and telecommunication must be part of the unused portion.

In 1994-95, I read the science fiction book Europa by Stanislaw Lem. Europa is a planet that is a brain, orbiting two suns, which causes illusions in the astronauts’ studying it. The planet’s seas are a gelatinous blue, the same as I used for A Woman’s Brain.

A Woman’s Brain (1995) is based upon an article that was published in the NY Times. Using new brain imaging techniques, it showed how a woman’s brain lights up in more places, but that a man’s brain lights up more intensely in one or two places. Doctors Sally and Bennett Shaywitz speculated that women may have an easier time rerouting signals in cases of dyslexia. This article allowed me to figure that my father was right.

I never read well — it took too much time and there were too many words. I liked poetry and plays and in college read the Oedipus trilogy by Sophocles; the classic story that Freud made into a household name. Sophocles says very little about the relationship between Oedipus and his mother and much more about Oedipus and his daughters as they accompany him into exile. Oedipus, in exile, calls himself a “walking tomb” another image of the undead that brought me further into the story. 

As an artist I was aware of the term chiaroscuro; the crossing of light and dark; and in reading poetry became aware of the literary term chiasmus, when two characters cross and their fates become inverted. The crossing of Oedipus’s fate with that of the blind prophet Theiresias is a classic example and follows the neurological crossing of the eye’s nerves into the brain to invert the image you see, not in your eye but in your brain. 

The Oedipal Blind Spot is a map of Oedipus’s journey. It is also that of a head, with two eyes (representing Corinth and Athens), the mouth and ear (representing Thebes) the brain as a reflective blind spot (representing the mountains where he was left as a boy and murdered his father) and the brain of premonition, intuition, and mystery (represented by the carrion birds of Theiresias). In this work, I wanted the viewer’s eye wander and never settle.

In 2004, I began a series of painted heads to represent the sensations, dreams and nightmares inside. I cut one open to weave a brain as a funnel and plane that divide the face from the head.  I suffer from migraines and often feel my head as alien — surrounded by color and light. Recalling the image of Oedipus, the eyeline (blotched and bruised), is a horizon line, a fine opening between the face of expression and the buried secret of the brain.

My Uncle (my father’s brother) was the Hungarian neurobiologist János Szentágothai. I knew him a little and when he would come to visit he brought his watercolors and painted. As a college student I visited him in Hungary in 1984, and he showed me volumes of large books of drawings that he made beginning in the late 1940s and continuing throughout his life. The drawings were abstract images of the brain at a cellular level; the cells were connected by light and dark squiggly lines and he told me how the brain worked. I never understood what he said but from his drawings I could determine that he began with his imagination to establish a theory that would become well know in the future.

Notes of gratitude:

Betty Zimmerberg was kind to give me writings and explain some of my Uncles theories and experiments.

A Woman’s Brain was made while I took part in the PS1 International Studio Program and was first shown at The Angel Orensanz Foundation, NYC in 1995.

The Oedipal Blind Spot was conceived as part of a larger exhibit called Oedipus Rex the Drowned Man at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. Catalogue available with text by Lynne Cooke.

I remain grateful to Alanna Heiss, founder of PS1, Susanne Ghez of the Renaissance Society and Lynne Cooke for their early support of my work.

Untitled (Head with Opening) was part of a larger series of works show at David Zwirner in 2006.

– Katy Schimert

Above images: Katy Schimert sewing A Woman’s Brain; fMRI images show the distribution of brain activation patterns in men (left) and women (right) during a nonword rhyming task; Star Trek; A Woman’s Brain; Katy Schimert’s work in the exhibition; Untitled (Head with Opening), 2006, paper, watercolor, and Plastilina. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York; drawing by Hungarian neurobiologist János Szentágothai, Katy Schimert’s uncle; Inside Katy Schimert’s Untitled (Head with Opening), 2006.

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