'Brains: The Mind as Matter' which opens today on Euston Road. As Ken Arnold says in his introduction to the accompanying book, the exhibition is 'stubbornly concerned with the brain as a venerated physical object' and focuses on how matter has been seen as the key to mind. There are striking photographs by Daniel Alexander of brains in jars at a Berlin hospital; there are incredible images of what the brain looks like before it's preserved (strangely pink and fleshy - almost like an uncooked chicken); there's even the left hemisphere of mathematician Charles Babbage. The deliberate focus on physicality put me in mind of Charles Simic's poem 'Harsh Climate' which begins:
The brain itself in its skull
Is very cold...
Simic goes on to paint an interesting picture of detachment. The brain is:
Something like a stretch of tundra
On the scale of the universe.
Lofty icebergs in the distance.
A large ocean liner caught in the ice.
A few lights still burning on the deck.
Silence and fierce cold.
Yet the Wellcome Trust exhibition has used this idea of the brain as a detached object, a venerated thing studied in isolation as a means of generating surprising collaborations. The boundary between art and science is deliberately and repeated blurred, with scientist Ramon y Cajal's amazingly intricate drawings of synapses and neurons displayed next to Katherine Dowson's remarkable 3D laser-etched lead crystal glass representation of the brain. Artist David Marron was invited to attend a brain dissection at a London tissue bank and his response, 'Nervous Tissue Note Panel' is a spectacular collage that reflects the strange effect of what must have been both a distancing and intimate experience.
For me, some of the most striking work in the exhibition was found in Ania Dabrowska's photographs of people who have decided to donate their brains after death for research. Simply shot against black backgrounds, they show the whole person, an interesting contrast to the iconic image of the disembodied brain which figures throughout.
It's impossible to do justice to the substance of this fascinating, thoughtful exhibition. Intensely physical (the room is laid out in 'slices', which mirror the brain samples in one display cabinet and reflect the notion of the 'modular mind'), 'The mind as matter' needs to be experienced. I heartily recommend a visit.