Brains: the Mind as Matter

Drawing of a section through the optic tectum of a sparrow, from ‘Structure of the nervous centres of the birds’, by Santiago Ramon y Cajal, 1905.

Last week I returned to UCL to finish some experiments for a paper and to, at long last, submit my PhD thesis. Fortunately, I also managed to catch one of the last days of the ‘Brains: Mind as Matter‘ exhibition at the Wellcome Collection.

Exhibitions at the Wellcome Collection tend to contain a mix of fine art, including some pieces commissioned specifically for the exhibition, and historical or cultural artefacts, including scientific or surgical instruments, newspaper articles, letters and anatomical models. ‘Brains’ was no exception.

The exhibition was divided into four sections, and the exhibits could really be approached in any order. The first pieces that attracted my attention were five large C-type prints, entitled ‘Brain Collecting 1-5’ (2011) by the artist, Daniel Alexander. These photographs were taken at the Campus Charité Mitte and Medical Historical Museum in Berlin and describe, in part, the movement of the pathological-anatomical collection of Dr. Rudolph Virchow, thought to be the first collection of its kind.

The photographs depict a large collection of brain specimens in glass jars. The contents of the jars are orange-brown, semi-transparent, presumably due to preservation of the tissues in a formaldehyde solution. The jars reside on shelving units in the centre of a room, a cellar, so that the light shines through from behind, illuminating each jar. In a sense, brain preservation ensures that the person will live forever. It was long thought that the brain is the site of the personality, what makes us human. The jars can also be thought of containing packets of information (cells, DNA), akin to the information travelling through our neurones and synapses every second.

Louis Thomas Jérôme Auzoux was a medical student in the early 1800s. Frustrated with the lack of wax models of human anatomy and that human cadavers deteriorated so rapidly, he began to make anatomical models out of papier mâché. The piece shown in ‘Brains’ belongs to the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, and depicts the human cerebellum, medulla, spinal cord, plexuses and nerves. Unlike many of Auzoux’s other models, this piece is relatively uncoloured, allowing the delicacy of the nerve structure to be clearly seen. The nerves are made from individual rolls of white paper, bound together into nerve tracts by threads. This paper sculpture is both beautiful and breath-taking in its sensitivity.

The brain and spinal cord also features in the piece that greets the visitor upon entering the exhibition, ‘Headache’ (2008) by Helen Pynor (courtesy of GV Art). However, unlike the Auzoux piece, this work imparts a sense of being underwater – it is lit from the top, has a rich green background like seawater, and this C-type photographic print is face-mounted on glass. This perhaps reminds us that our bodies are made mostly of water, that the synapses between our neurones are bathed in water, essential for neuronal transmission, for thinking, sensing and feeling. I find this image also to be rather solemn and quiet. The notion of water imparts a jelly-like feeling to the brain, reducing it to a slimy piece of lifeless matter, re-inforcing the concept that we are (merely) a composite of body tissues and cellular matter.

As observed in the Auzoux papier mâché piece, sensory and motor neurones disseminate from the brain and spinal cord and branch out to every part of the body to form structures reminiscent of the veins of a leaf or a river delta viewed from above. In a similar way, the arteries and capillaries of the cardiovascular system travel out from the heart, throughout the body, to the veins returning the de-oxygenated blood. In ‘Brains’, two pieces recapitulated the vasculature of the brain in exquisite detail.

A corrosion cast of blood vessels from the 1980s (Gordon Museum, King’s College London), was made by injecting the brain with liquid plastic. The surrounding tissue was then corroded away using acid or alkali to leave a delicate structure to be analysed using an electron microscope. The red colour of the plastic used gives this piece the look of coral removed from the sea and allowed to dry out. The blood vessels looked as fragile as one might expect a such a coral specimen to be.

The second was a piece I was familiar with from a visit to the Art & Science exhibition at GV Art last year in Marylebone, London. ‘Memory of a Brain Malformation’ (2006) by Katharine Dowson is a three-dimensional glass etching, made from a brain angiogram of her cousin’s venous-arterial malformation. The ethereal nature of this piece encapsulates the viewer, shifting in and out of focus. In observing this piece, you are made acutely aware of the workings of your own brain, as it tries to make sense of the twists and turns of the capillaries.

Unfortunately, this exhibition has now closed, but no doubt future exhibitions at the Wellcome Collection will be just as stimulating and thought-provoking.

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