States of Mind

Catalogue essay for Scribing the Soul

Gill Saunders

Scribing the Soul
Touring exhibition to: Customs House, South Shields, Science Oxford, Oxford, Peninsula Arts, Plymouth, Transition Gallery, London
22 February – 17 August 2008

“Noosphere… the living membrane which is stretched like a film over the lustrous surface of the star which holds us. An ultimate envelope taking on its own individuality and gradually detaching itself like a luminous aura.”

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, 1955[1]

Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit priest and palaeontologist, synthesized his faith in God and his faith in science to envision an evolving Creation in which the noosphere (the sphere of human thought, from the Greek “nous” meaning mind) was the third in a succession of phases of the development of the Earth. First came the geosphere (inanimate matter) then the biosphere (biological life) and then, with the emergence of human cognition, the noosphere. Chardin postulated the idea that this net of human consciousness enveloped the globe, and comprised “myriad grains of thought” or “individual reflections” grouped into a collective mind or what we might call a collective consciousness.[2]

Susan Aldworth’s extraordinary prints, inspired by scans of the brains of patients at the Neuroradiology department of the Royal London Hospital, might be read as vivid illustrations of Chardin’s theory. Comprising constellations of nerves and neural networks, luminous webs of connective tissues, each image shows an ‘organism of Mind’ or in Aldworth’s own words (echoing Chardin) as an instance of the ‘birth of thought’. Each of her ‘Brainscapes’ (the series title for a sequence of etchings made in 2005-6) might be taken to represent one of these ‘grains of thought’ which together cohere in an encompassing human consciousness, a ‘portrait’ of what it is to be human. I am reminded of Helen Chadwick’s 1991 Self-Portrait [3] in which the artist is seen cradling a brain in her hands, a fragile treasure swathed in folds of silken cloth like a holy relic; presented without reference to gender, age or race, it becomes a collective self-portrait of mankind, in which consciousness – this ability to contemplate one’s own mind – is synonymous with human identity. Likewise Aldworth’s etchings, in one sense peculiarly intimate ‘portraits’ in that they record or represent the brain scans of individuals, have been transmuted from specific to generic, from personal to universal.

Though they address an aspect of anatomy using the tools of medical imaging, investigation and treatment, these prints are not medical illustrations in the conventional sense; they are visual equivalents for the brain’s activity, representing the electrical charges, the chemical reactions which constitute thought, consciousness, and neurological event. In them organic forms bloom and spark in the deep space of blue (the Brainscapes) or black (Birth of Thought series) grounds. Are these meditations on beauty, the expressions of emotion (love, fear), or the manifestations of trauma in the brain – a haemorrhage, a seizure, the aftermath of a stroke? Their ambiguity reinforces our sense that the mind – and the phenomenon of consciousness – remains an unfathomable mystery. A dissection of the brain or a colour-coded scan can elucidate the physical aspects, and allow us to grasp the structure, the circuitry, but the process – and the very concept of consciousness and thought – remains elusive, something we can understand only obliquely through the medium of metaphor and analogy. Aldworth’s etchings compound this mystery even as they illuminate it.

Aldworth has made several series of etchings, as well as digital prints, drawings and films, all addressing this subject – part of an ongoing exploration which has consumed her since her own experience of undergoing a cerebral angiogram seven years ago. Aldworth is not alone in applying the revelatory technologies of diagnostic imaging in the pursuit of understanding identity, in seeking the site of our sense of self-hood, nor is she the only artist employing the visual language of medicine in the making of portraits. When Mona Hatoum recorded a visceral voyage through her own body, by means of video endoscopy, she offered a peculiarly intimate self-portrait, an interior landscape of pulsing flesh, but she gave it the title Corps Étranger (Foreign Body).[4] When asked about this apparent contradiction she explained “we don’t have access to our insides except […] when we go to hospital and discover we have a terrible disease, so […] the internal workings of our body are completely foreign to us most of the time.”[5] This of course is the conundrum that intrigues Aldworth, and has provoked her various attempts to make this foreign landscape of the brain – of the mind itself – visible and accessible to us. A number of her prints, especially the Brainscapes and the Birth of a Thought sequence (2006-7), read like maps of the brain’s activity described through its neural pathways, the network of nerves, blood vessels and cells. As illustrations of its convoluted topography these are guides to uncharted territory. But always the emphasis is on this fundamental struggle to describe and understand – to ‘grasp’ – the essence of consciousness. This is vividly dramatised in the series The Self as Shadow Puppet (2007; also etchings) in which hands (each opened wide in a gesture of wonder) reach up and out of the darkness towards a disembodied image of the brain framed by shimmering cilia-like forms.

Aldworth’s etchings derive from or are inspired by her drawings of the same subjects but they are by no means direct reproductions of these drawings, nor are they intended to be; the drawings and watercolours are independent works, but they are also the starting point from which the prints expand by an innovative exploitation of the nature and characteristic qualities of printmaking to create images which are the graphic equivalents of the processes they describe.

Of course printmaking has always been a medium of experiment, invention, accident and alchemy, with its progress through successive states, the productions of proofs, the corrections, calculations and serendipitous discoveries, the uncertainties inherent in the use of acids and inks. Aldworth has worked with fellow artist and master printmaker Nigel Oxley, and together they have collaborated to push the boundaries of the etching process, developing what they describe as “a radical form of ‘white line’ etching which uses chemical reactions on the surface of the plate to mirror chemical activity in the brain.”[6] In the Brainscapes and the Birth of a Thought series Aldworth has discovered the perfect marriage of medium and subject, choosing to interpret the medical data through the potential offered by etching. Of all the printmaking techniques etching is perhaps the best suited to her aims and the expression of her ideas. Oxley has acknowledged this, commenting “you let the process find its own life”.[7] Indeed it is this capacity afforded by etching, this potential to generate imagery in and of itself, which is directly analogous to the neurological events Aldworth observed in the scans. The etchings are records of their own making which mirror the mind at work.

It was Oxley’s experience and technical expertise which enabled Aldworth to work on an unusually large scale (the most recent etchings are “huge…at the limit of the aquatint box![8]) but also to push the process in new directions, “taking bits of old vocabulary and turning them into something else.”[9] In their experiments with negative, or ‘white line’, etching they discovered by chance that a line drawn on the etching plate using a permanent marker acted as a resist. This gave an unprecedented fluency to the etchings, but also offered a graphic equivalent for the negative line seen in cerebral angiograms. This method of working entirely with white line, producing a strong contrast with the rich aquatint grounds, was especially important to Aldworth; the white lines introduce an emphatic light which she sees as suggestive of the personality of the patients, and a means of expressing their individual consciousness. Aldworth and Oxley also allowed the unpredictable effects of their materials to produce serendipitous effects – as when they let methylated spirits bleed into white spirit, resulting in a fluid organic imagery that mimics the chemical reactions in the brain itself.

The Brainscapes etchings are printed in a rich evocative blue pigment. Aldworth describes the appearance of this colour in her work almost as if it were an independent phenomenon generated by the work itself: “An intense blue was beginning to emerge in my studio work – which I later call[ed] cerebral blue. It is a colour which many patients say they associate with brain trauma.”[10] The echoes and associations of this blue reach beyond the particular circumstances of artist and subject in ways which resonate with the wider meaning and context; painter Sam Francis claimed it as “the colour of speculation”[11], and again there are analogies between Aldworth’s work and that of Helen Chadwick. The central feature of Chadwick’s magnificent installation The Oval Court (1986)[12] is a collage of photocopies printed in a deep blue. She described her choice thus: “it seemed to me that the colour where one cannot determine gravity or perspective is blue”[13] Marina Warner, writing of Chadwick’s work, reminds us that blue is the colour of the mysterious and the unknown, as we acknowledge in the phrase ‘out of the blue’[14]; indeed it can also refer to something unexpected – apt in relation to Aldworth’s use of blue since brain traumas such as aneurysms often strike without warning. These ideas are expanded by the philosopher William Gass, in his essay ‘On Being Blue’, where he says that “colour is consciousness itself, colour is feeling… Of the colours blue and green have the greatest emotional range… Blue is therefore the most suitable as the colour of interior life.”[15]

Colour of mind, spirit, and transcendence, this rich blue which Aldworth favours also has a specific scientific association: it is strongly reminiscent of the cyanotype (or blueprint) process. Cyanotype, an early photographic process invented by Sir John Herschel in 1842, was used almost exclusively for making photograms or ‘photogenic drawings’. Amongst the earliest and best known applications of the process are the botanical illustrations of Anna Atkins (1799-1871) who made exquisite records of ephemeral organic materials such as algae, seaweeds, and wild flowers, which were effectively unique self-portraits of the specimens. This blue is thus indelibly associated with a spirit of scientific enquiry and experiment, allied with aesthetic effect, and belongs to the history of recording fragile and fugitive phenomena.

Bringing together the subjective with the objective, Aldworth’s prints belong to a distinguished tradition in which art is the partner to science in the advance of insight and understanding of the human condition. Through the medium of etching – a process crucially dependent on chemical reactions – she has produced prints which embody the act of the creation, and in the process she gives us extraordinarily intimate portraits of the mind in action. In these prints we see the luminous aura of Chardin’s noosphere incarnated in images of our “thinking flesh.”[16]

Gill Saunders is Senior Curator (Prints) in the Word & Image Department at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

[1] All quotes from Teilhard de Chardin are taken from The Phenomenon of Man (Harper & Row: New York, 1975)

[2] I am grateful to Christopher Bucklow for an enlightening conversation on Teilhard de Chardin’s theories.

[3] Collection of National Galleries of Scotland

[4] Corps Étranger, 1994. Video installation. Collection of centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

[5] Mona Hatoum in an interview with John Tusa, 4 September, 2005 (BBC Radio 3)

[6] Susan Aldworth ‘The physical brain and the sense of self: an artist’s exploration (lecture, 2007; unpublished)

[7] “Collective thinking” [Nigel Oxley in conversation with Susan Aldworth], Printmaking Today, Vol.15, No.2, summer 2006, p.27

[8] In an email from the artist to this author, March 12, 2007

[9] Printmaking Today. See note 7

[10] Susan Aldworth lecture. See note 6.

[11] Sam Francis, Saturated Blue: Writings from the Notebooks (Santa Monica:: The Lapis Press, 1995)

[12] Collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum

[13] Quoted in Of Mutability: Helen Chadwick (ICA: London, 1986), n.p.

[14] Marina Warner, “In the Garden of Earthly Delights: Helen Chadwick’s Of Mutability”, in Of Mutability: Helen Chadwick. See note 13.

[15] William Gass, On Being Blue (Manchester, 1979), pp.73, 75-6

[16] Susan Aldworth’s description of the brain, in a diary entry describing her experience of a cerebral angiogram, 26 October 2001. See