States of Mind: Tracing the Edges of Consciousness, Wellcome Collection, London, until 16 October 2016
‘. . . the unconscious is the real psychic; its inner nature is just as unknown to us as the reality of the external world, and it is just as imperfectly reported to us through the data of consciousness as is the external world through the indications of our sensory organs.’
Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams
There’s a point in childhood when we all ask: ‘Who am I? What makes me, me and not someone else?’ From the infant to the philosopher the need to understand consciousness has remained, despite the advances of science, an abiding puzzle. What does it mean to be a sentient individual, to have a subjective life? Can our essence best be found in the insights of neuroscience or art, poetry, philosophy or, even, religion? Where does the real ‘us’ reside? In States of Mind: Tracing the Edges of Consciousness the Wellcome Institute has produced another intriguing exhibition that melds different disciplines to examine the discourses around conscious experience. The implication is that one discipline alone cannot provide definitive insight into this universal mystery. As the curator Emily Sargent suggests: ‘Consciousness . . . is as magical as it is everyday. We all know what it is like to be conscious, but it remains a challenge to truly define it’.
The first of four sections, SCIENCE/SOUL, takes as its starting point the emergence of neuroscience. The concept of dualism, the separation of Mind and Body that coloured Enlightenment thinking was first, formally, conceived by René Descartes in the seventeenth century. The division between the inanimate body and the conscious soul in the last moments of life is graphically illustrated, here, in a print by Luigi Schiavonetti, after William Blake, of The Soul hovering over the Body reluctantly parting with Life. Placed next to a sixteenth-century Jain textile, which illustrates in its map-like construction that the eternal soul is central to Jainism, and to a 1662 image: View of Posterior of Brain showing pineal gland in situ – Descartes suggested, in his last published work of 1649, The Passions of the Soul: ‘That there is a small gland in the brain in which the soul exercises its functions more particularly than in other parts’ – we are presented with a range of possible locations as to the soul’s whereabouts. Alongside these seventeenth-century gems are the papers of Francis Crick who was working, until his death in 2004, on the ‘hard problem’ of how an objective brain can produce the subjective experience of consciousness. Surprisingly, for a modern scientist, his 1994 paper has the unconventional title: The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul.
For many in the nineteenth century the search for the soul was synonymous with spiritualism. The Gelatin Silver Prints of Louise Darget (1847-1923), a one-time professional soldier, show an interest in ‘spiritual’ photography. His strange ectoplasmic black and white photo of 1896, The Eagle, was obtained by placing a photographic plate above the forehead of Mrs Darget while she was asleep. The discovery of x-rays also encouraged attempts to capture unseen phenomena. But the beautifully observed, late nineteenth-century drawings that depict the intricate structures of the brain, executed with consummate skill by Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the founder of modern neuroscience, emphasise a parallel desire for objective fact-finding.
Synaesthesia, an experience where one sensation may trigger another, has been used by many artists. Kandinsky explored perception and sensation in his Über das Geistige in der Kunst, which made connections between looking at art and listening to music, while Vladimir Nabokov experienced letters as colours. This is explored by Jean Holabird in his 2005 series of watercolours, Nabokov’s Alphabet in Colour, where, apparently, ‘A French A evokes polished ebony’.
Somnambulism, mesmerism, and sleep paralysis were an abiding fin de siècle fascination. In 1830 Robert Macnish, a Scottish surgeon, defined sleep as the ‘intermediate state between life and death’ and the second section of the exhibition, SLEEP/AWAKE, includes archive material from the first trial where ‘insanity sleep’ was used as a successful defence. At the beginning of the twentieth century Freud’s ideas of the unconscious were becoming widespread and the inclusion of footage of the 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari follows the destiny of a man apparently compelled to commit murder whilst asleep. The experience of sleep paralysis, where sleepers are mentally awake but the body remains immobile, is reflected in art works as diverse as Henry Fuseli’s 1781 painting The Nightmare, with its suffocating incubus, and Carla MacKinnon’s evocative contemporary installation Squeezed by the Shadows, where the viewer is invited to peer into peep holes bored into a large cylinder to observe inchoate black shapes and marks. The alienating effect of being on the outside staring in only emphasises the feeling of observing something barely understood.
Alien abduction narratives have often been associated with sleep and related, by psychologists, to false memory syndrome. Communion: A True Story, published in February 1987 by American ‘ufologist’ and horror author Whitley Strieber, claimed that the author’s experience of ‘lost time’ and terrifying flashbacks were the result of an encounter with aliens. This, apparently, was revealed under hypnosis. There is something truly eerie about much of this section that includes disturbing nineteenth-century images of mesmerism and Animal Magnetism being practiced on, largely, female patients, who seem to be showing ‘predictable’ signs of ‘disinhibition’ and ‘hysteria’.
To imagine an individualised self without language and memory is well-nigh impossible and the third section includes extracts from Post-Partum Document, a six-year exploration of the mother-child relationship by the artist Mary Kelly first shown at the ICA in London in 1976. At the time the work provoked tabloid outrage because Documentation I dared to show soiled nappies. Each of the six-part series concentrates on a moment in Kelly’s son’s linguistic development and her own sense of loss, moving between the voices of the mother, child, and observer. Informed by feminism and psychoanalysis, the work has had a lasting influence on the development of conceptual art. Here we see a series of black ‘tablets’ inscribed with both the child’s first attempts to form letters, alongside adult observations. Beside this A. R. Hopwood’s False Memory Archive, previously shown at the Freud Museum, explores where the truth lies in a ‘false’ recollection, while questioning how fact and fiction blend to challenge assumptions about memory.
One of the most disturbing exhibits is by the so-called Binjamin Wilkomirski. Wilkomirski was the name adopted by Bruno Dössekker (born Bruno Grosjean in 1941) in order to construct a false identity as a Holocaust survivor. His fictional 1995 memoir, published in English as Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood, was debunked by Swiss journalist and writer Daniel Ganzfried in August 1998. The whole episode raised philosophical problems about authenticity, fact, fiction and imagination, posing questions as to who owns memories and historical narratives.
The final section BEING/NOT BEING (a title that surely echoes Sartre’s famous work on self-hood) gets to the existential nub of what it means to be human by considering what happens when consciousness is disrupted following injury or trauma. If we are in a persistent vegetative state are we any less the person we were before that happened? FMRI scans of patients who are minimally conscious reveal imaginative activity. This raises ethical debates around how we treat those in need of persistent care. If, as seems to be suggested, they are still, in some way, able still to ‘think’ then, according to a Descartian view, they still are very much ‘themselves’. Alongside these, Aya Ben Ron’s film Still Under Treatment (2005) documents the moment that patients fall unconscious under general anaesthetic, the state closest to brain death (yet reversible) that we can experience whilst still alive.
An imaginative and thought-provoking exhibition, States of Mind looks at the twilight zones between sleep and wakefulness, feeling and anaesthesia, awareness and oblivion, to remind us that neither art nor science has a monopoly of insight into what it means to be a conscious human. We may be able to reach out and explore the further reaches of space or investigate the microcosmic world of quarks and protons, to make art, poetry, and music, but consciousness still remains a mystery. As the cognitive scientist, psychologist, and linguist, Steven Pinker suggests, ‘nothing gives life more purpose than the realization that every moment of consciousness is a precious and fragile gift’.
Sue Hubbard is an award-winning poet, novelist and freelance art critic. The Poetry Society’s only ever official Public Art Poet, she has published three collections of poetry: Everything Begins with the Skin (Enitharmon), Ghost Station and The Forgetting and Remembering of Air (Salt), a book of short stories, Rothko’s Red (Salt) and two novels, Depth of Field (Dewi Lewis) and Girl in White (Cinnamon Press). Her third novel will be published by Cinnamon in 2017. Art critic for many years on The Independent and The New Statesman, her Adventures in Art, a compendium of essays on art, is published by Other Criteria.