The human mind and the interactions between the main levels of awareness - the preconscious, the conscious, and the unconscious - that operate within us have fascinated throughout the decades not just doctors and scientists, but artists as well. Quite a few people state indeed to have lived intriguing experiences as they lingered in a twilight world suspended between consciousness and unconsciousness, between vitality and a vegetative state.
"States of Mind: Tracing the Edges of Consciousness", an exhibition currently on at the Wellcome Collection in London (until 16th October 2016) explores the mysteries behind the conscious and unconscious experience in an interesting way. The event combines indeed the work of psychologists, philosophers, neuroscientists and artists, offering visitors the chance to ponder about this contradictory dichotomy in our lives through drawings, paintings, books and contemporary art installations, while wondering about the relationships between brain activity and cognitive functions such as memory or decision taking.
Curated by Emily Sargent, the exhibition opens with a section on "Science & Soul" that invites visitors to consider the dualism between the physical and the internal worlds through "The Soul Hovering over the Body reluctantly parting with Life" by Luigi Schiavonetti, after William Blake, but also via René Descartes' theories on the pineal gland.
There is a lot to discover in this small section, including the work of the Italian physician Camillo Golgi and the ink brain studies by the founder of neuroscience Santiago Ramón y Cajal.
The Spanish scientist identified the role of neurons in the nervous system as proved by his early 1900s studies showing human neonatal astrocytes, motor sensitive patterns, afferents to the cortex and ganglia of the sympathetic nervous system.
While his drawings may show astrocytes as star-shaped glial cells proving that scientists were more focused on understanding what makes the conscious/unconscious experience possible, artists and writers focused more on the quality of the experience.
In 1897 French army officer Louis Darget tried to take thought photographs, believing that "nervous fluid" passed out of the brain and the fingertips and that photographs could capture the halo of the fluid; while in 2005 American illustrator Jean Holabird came up with delicate watercolours depicting Vladimir Nabokov's coloured hearing as outlined in his autobiography, tackling in this way an interesting topic, letter-colour synaesthesia.
A new dichotomy - this time between sleep and wakefulness - awaits visitors in the next section. "Sleep & Awake" cleverly introduces people to phenomena such as somnambulism, mesmerism and sleep paralysis through archive material from the first trial where "insanity of sleep" was successfully used as a defence, as well as footage from Robert Wiene’s iconic silent film Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920) with its hypnotic sets representing a condition of psychological turmoil in Cesare, a young man who is controlled while asleep.
Lying on the ground, visitors will encounter an installation, Gosha Macuga's spooky "Somnambulist", a representation of Cesare sleeping, maybe ready to rise, be manipulated by someone or kill of his own accord, like the Manchester man who murdered his father while sleepwalking as recounted by newspaper articles included in the exhibition.
The experience of sleep paralysis and the limbo between hypnagogic and hypnopompic stages are explored through the preparatory sketches for Henry Fuseli's 1781 painting, "The Nightmare", with an ugly monster sitting on a woman's chest probably illustrating not a frightening vision, but the scientific phenomenon of sleep paralysis, that leaves the person waking up with a crushing sensation in their chest.
The third section of the exhibition looks at the development of Language & Memory: while Mary Kelly's "Post-Partum Document" charts through drawings her changing relationship with her son as he begins to develop speech, the mixed media installation "The Whisper Heard" by Imogen Stidworthy juxtaposes the voice of the artist's son Severin with the voice of Tony, a man suffering from aphasia after a stroke.
Both read the extract from Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth in which the main character awakens from unconsciousness alone and lost in a maze of underground tunnels, yet Severin repeats the words with ease but without understanding their meaning, while Tony grasps the meaning, but finds it difficult to reproduce the words. One project in this section focuses on psychoanalysis and education and looks at Fernand Deligny's "Wander Lines", transcriptions onto maps of the movements and gestures of autistic children, with the lines creating a sort of common language.
The last section of "States of Mind" is particularly moving as it looks at disorders of consciousness occurring with brain injuries, diseases or traumas. While some of the documents and videos on display look at anesthesia, a state of reversible coma (see Aya Ben Ron's troubling "Still Under Treatment", with patients being anesthetised prior to surgery, but also the painting "An Unconscious Naked Man Lying on a Table Being Attacked By Little Demons Armed With Surgical Instruments; Symbolising the Effects of Chloroform on the Human Body" by Richard Tennant Cooper, 1912), Aya Ben Ron's film "Shift" follows the lives of clinically unaware patiens, their families and care staff.
The video opens the debate on clinically unaware or minimally conscious patients, reminding us that fMRI scans of patients in persistent vegetative or minimally conscious states have been shown to reveal imaginative activity. The piece leaves visitors to think about the implications and ethical debates surrounding the care, rehabilitation and end-of-life wishes of these individuals.
The Wellcome Collection's "States of Mind" hasn't got any definitive answer to the enigma of consciousness, in fact it actually highlights the lack of final answers, emphasising the fact that the realm between wakefulness and oblivion is a mysteriously dangerous place, while prompting visitors to question unconsciousness and awareness. In a way the event could have been extended to include some textile artists who have been exploring some of these themes in their works, but the fact that the curator opted for a combination of works by scientists, philosophers and artists is refreshing and makes you hope that in future fashion and textiles will be included in further exhibitions analysing these themes (the event actually features a textile from 16th century depicting the Jain concept of the universe in the form of a cosmic man).
In the meantime, if you're a textile designer bring in a sketchbook and think about how to recreate patterns inspired by Golgi's filigree-like neurons or Cajal's studies, making sure that this compact exhibition turns into the starting point for your personal research. The main subject is indeed fascinatingly complex and will guarantee a rich experience, opening various paths of research to those ones brave enough to venture along them.
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