Material Mysteries

Catalogue essay for Scribing the Soul.
Arts Council England funded tour 2008.

Robert Mason

Key of Life
Scheltema Contemporary Gallery, Leiden, 2010

Great mysteries invite us to rationalise or celebrate them, and artists are inevitably drawn to this process. Susan Aldworth’s chosen mystery centres on ‘the material nature of personal identity’, and her work has involved her in a longstanding dialogue with medicine and science – especially, neuroscience. More specifically, this dialogue focuses on the human body: her own body and other people’s bodies.

Historically, Western artists placed the religious impulse, at once so attractive and so destructive, at the centre of their work. At the behest of the Church, for many centuries their work revolved around the mysteries of existence – creation, (im)mortality, and morality – striving, within the boundaries set by their patrons’ belief systems and political agenda, to find expression for these profound themes.

Globally, art has echoed this ‘striving’, offering physical form to spiritual dilemmas that come cloaked in a bewildering array of theisms, hagiographies, and arcane (though everyday) rituals, derived from an equal confusion of sacred texts. The process has thrown up – as a positive complement to persecution, war, torture, terrorism and unrivalled social arrogance – some of our most beautiful and profound art forms, and not, obviously, solely within the confines of drawing and painting.

From Bach’s sacred cantatas, to an Andalucian drunk’s passionate (almost erotic) serenading of a carved Madonna during Semana Santa, and from austere Ethiopian stone churches to the intricate geometric dance of Islamic mosaics, the religious impulse has generated the transcendent and the terrifying, equally.

But for many contemporary artists, religion’s negatives outweigh its positives, to the extent that it proves impossible to align their art with the formulae and speculative certainties of the religious search. An alternative lies in replacing one great mystery with another: for Aldworth, the mystery of the physical self – especially, the brain – and its attendant metaphysical conundrums.

It could be said that there is an existential enquiry occurring here, rather than a religious or spiritual one, since it is one scaled down from the universal to the personal, and rooted far more in the material, than in the mystical. Aldworth chooses a ‘search’ that is intimate and comprehensible rather than global and grandiose, well aware that we are all in the same boat, all locked in our own little one-person vessel with its imperfections, everyday miracles – and inevitable sell-by date.

Such enquiry is not new within art, and historically it has often been undertaken in tandem with more conventionally religious imagery. It is tantalising to look at Leonardo’s unflinching anatomical research, taking place alongside his flawless religious commissions, and to speculate on the depth of his excitement about the two bodies of work. Or to consider Rembrandt’s luminous Biblical masterpieces, and then The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Nicolaes Tulp, or the small drawing Hanged Woman on a Gibbet.

Though Rembrandt’s humanism and virtuosity shine through all of his work, there is something about the awkwardness of this latter image that makes one suspect that the great human mystery of a life ended – stripped of religion’s ‘certainties’ – affected him most profoundly. One could even apply this train of thought to his self-portraits, though – considered individually at least – they are not as literally concerned with mortality.

Within contemporary art, the enquiry into corporeal experience has many outcomes. Marlene Dumas’s and Jenny Saville’s paintings share a direct lineage with Rembrandt’s humanism, as do Michael Landy’s movingly objective drawings of his dying father. Helen Chadwick’s mandala-like assemblages, juxtaposing human and industrial materials, seem to embody a search for meaning that is beyond what they actually depict. Andre Serrano and Joel-Peter Witkin exploit Photography’s directness to extraordinary effect. The shamanistic experiments of Franko B, Otto Muehl, and Orlan push a concern with physicality into areas that some find hard even to categorise as ‘art’, though physical extremes have often been part of the mystic’s experience: that religious impulse, again.

Aldworth’s art inhabits a less confrontational, though no less serious, realm. Her involvement in working from the body and in addressing notions of consciousness and personality is longstanding. It stems from a traumatic personal experience – one might almost say a ‘conversion’, of sorts – but she has moved her work away from egocentricity to something more altruistic and generous. In doing so she has involved an equally generous range of processes and media, collaborating with digital artists, musicians, wood workers and printmakers, while keeping intact a firm sense of direction.

As well as with artistic collaborators, Aldworth has engaged with surgeons, psychologists, academics – and crucially, with patients themselves – to create a sense of shared humanity that runs through her output, to date. This aspect of her work makes her part of the humanist lineage, mentioned earlier: Aldworth’s concerns may revolve around identity but they are neither solipsistic, nor isolationist.

If any artist embodies such a humanist tradition it is, surely, Rembrandt, and it is notable that Aldworth has chosen a medium inevitably identified with him, as the vehicle for her most recent work. But etching’s literal penetration of a surface not only links her with creative precursors, it also – intentionally or otherwise – chimes in with notions of penetrating – entering – the body (and even the ‘self’, whatever that is): notions that Aldworth has seen physically enacted, scores of times, during surgical procedures.

And her own body becomes an element in this scribing process; as part of the making of a piece she has to expose parts of her self to the aquatint process: hooded in plastic, she is unable to breathe as resin dust settles on her, and an image of her hand, or arm is transposed onto the plate. What appears on the wall, as a two-dimensional image, is actually a record of a more demanding physical experience.

In the light of such serious concerns, it is perhaps unexpected that a certain sense of playfulness is apparent in the work. Partly, this is due to the exploration and discovery involved in the process of making; as well as being hard, the work is genuinely exciting, and this excitement finds a path into the prints.

But there is a further sense of near-frivolity, in some of the images, that is refreshing. A disembodied hand balances a disembodied brain on one finger, like a Covent Garden plate-spinner or a pizza chef twirling dough, while a chorus line of sperm-like Oscillating Interneurons undulate as if choreographed by some microscopic Busby Berkeley. Frenetic scored marks, derived from arteries, veins, shunts and catheters, evolve into flower shapes, amoebic forms, and graffiti that strive to tell us something in a language that the writer is only partly fluent in, and that is foreign but attractive to us. Abstract smears of aquatint evoke the Milky Way, swarms of fireflies, or imagined creatures.

The potential sombreness of – largely – monochrome imagery, made in an antique process carrying centuries of import and precedent, is enlivened by a sense of discovery that celebrates the joys of thinking, feeling, working and sharing, and that is unusual in a period of irony and materialism within the arts.

Looking back once more, such ‘playfulness’ is not so surprising. Those involved with the visual exploration of the body have often imported a sense of embellishment and decoration into their images. Renaissance and Enlightenment dissection figures gesture heroically or camply in what must be malodorous Elysian Fields, sporting their skins like togas or peeling them back with optimistic coquettishness. The flawless anatomical figures of the 17th and 18th centuries present us with pearl tears on luscious, even eroticised wax ‘skin’, intended to make inner truths more palatable, or more shocking. Ruysch’s preserved embryos sport natty lace collars, bracelets and anklets, while Honoré Fragonard’s caper skittishly for eternity in his biblical tableaux.

Such embellishment conveys a loaded, even perverse mood in the face of death, but Aldworth’s interest lies in vivacity, not in morbidity. Her work is rooted in observing and drawing a process of healing, rather than post-mortem dissection. Though a sense of seriousness is rightly present, and though we know that those attempts at healing might fail, a more positive atmosphere pervades things. The making of the work is part and parcel of present, shared existence; something to be relished, questioned and understood (as far as is possible). This is a process that engages intuition as much as intellect; the fact that the ‘understanding’ will, probably, always remain partial does not discount the value of the enquiry. We see here, not a dressing-up of unpalatable mortality, but a response to the complex mysteries of living within this astonishing little ‘one-person vessel’.

In an earlier essay on Aldworth’s work, Paul Broks wrote: ‘The mission of science is to dispel the paradox (inherent in the ‘mind / body problem); Aldworth celebrates it’. In doing so, she contributes to a current body of research and knowledge that needs its subjective aspects alongside the empirical: scientists of all stripes acknowledge this. She combines a genuine humanism with a liberated response to those mysteries that a more commonplace religious response reduces to stale formulae. There are, thankfully, no ‘certainties’ in her art, save for the fact that she is here, doing it, now, and we are here to respond to it.

Robert Mason, is an artist and writer, and was Senior Lecturer, Norwich University of the Arts 1990-2013.