Transience and Passing Thoughts

Curator Jill Sheridan in conversation with Susan Aldworth – GV Art gallery, London 2013.

The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
13 September 2016 – 5 February 2017

Chasing consciousness

Passing Thoughts
Chasing consciousness

JS:  The works shown in this exhibition are representative of twenty years of research and experimentation, pushing the boundaries of printmaking. Your work before this time was far more decorative and autobiographical, referencing your Italian Catholic background. Could you describe how you have arrived at this latest body of work?

SA: Over the last two decades, alongside my exploration into print techniques, I have spent a great deal of time researching the relationship between the physical brain and the self. In 1999 I had a diagnostic brain scan during which I was able to see inside my brain, real time, on a monitor. The scan was a revelation. Where was the ‘me’ in the physical matter of the brain. At university I had studied philosophy and had always been interested in the theories of mind. So in a way it was surprising that it had taken me so long to get to this juncture.

JS: So having had this revelation, how did you begin this journey?

SA: I approached the Consultant who carried out the scan to and he agreed that I could observe him at work. Every Tuesday morning for the next two years, I would go to the hospital and draw. Drawing has always been my way into a new subject matter. I sat behind a screen looking inside the brains of patients.  I soon learnt that a brain is as individual as a face. It became apparent to me that these cerebral landscapes were a form of portraiture. In the past you could only see the brain via the dissection of a cadaver. Here I was looking straight into living, working brains. What was the relationship between this physical organ and my sense of self and consciousness?

JS: You talk about seeing this early work as a form of portraiture – can you explain what you meant by this? The subjects of your portraits were anonymous – you observed their medical procedures, but you never formally met them and they didn’t sit for you in a conventional way.  So how did you interpret the word portrait at that stage?

SA: My portraits have developed from my explorations into What is a self ? These were initially inspired by drawings of the cerebral landscapes of the thirty people I observed having procedures in the hospital. I developed them into a suite of etchings called Brainscapes. The brain is inexorably linked to personal identity. So, if I use drawings from a person’s individual’s brain scan in a work then it has to be some sort of portrait of them. I was fascinated by the ambiguity of brain scans: the gap between what they do show (the physical structure of the brain) and what they don’t – consciousness and a sense the self.

JS: You said you were interested in the anatomy of the brain and you were awarded a Wellcome Trust grant to be Artist in Residence at the Gordon Museum of Pathology. What impact did this have on your work at that juncture?

SA: The experiences of looking at the dissected cadavers and body parts in jars as opposed to the disembodied, digitalised imagery of scans of a living bod was very important to my ideas. Watching the dissection of a dead body was difficult but significant. It led me to think about the brain as a physical object.

JS:  You developed a project – Reassembling the Self – which investigated schizophrenia. You told me that you made portraits of Schizophrenia itself. What did you mean by this?

SA:  I was invited to work with the legendary lithographer Stanley Jones at the Curwen Studio to work on the Reassembling the Self lithographs. We reassembled the body into crazy impossible anatomies to question the relationship between the physical body and the self. We used plate lithography to merge drawn marks with digital photography and ancient anatomical illustrations. The reassembled anatomy became a metaphor for the pain and difficulty of having schizophrenia when the self is under attack from within. I wanted to portray a body out of kilter and a challenged sense of self.

JS: It was at this time that the curator, Paul Moorhouse, from the National Portrait Gallery in London came to your studio. Was it obvious to him that your work at this stage was about portraiture?

SA:  No, I think what Paul was interested in philosophical theories of mind, and we spoke about how notions of human identity been challenged by the materialism of current neuroscience. We discussed how these ideas might radicalise my work in sense of making portraits. There are many narratives that make up a person. There is the external surface; there is the anatomical structure of the body; there is neuroscientific explanation of what is going on in the brain; there is a medicalised account and, finally, there is the personal account – what it feels like to be you. I have worked to develop a visual language which allows these different narratives to emerge in my work.   His visit was a catalyst. The result was the National Portrait Gallery display Susan Aldworth: The Portrait Anatomised. – three large scale portraits of people  with epilepsy made up of nine individual monotypes which tiled together. They are very complex works merging the philosophical, personal and medical narratives of the sitters.

JS: How did you make the leap from these huge multi-image portraits to this body of work? Not only are they a change of focus but the scale has reduced dramatically.

SA: I was invited with a group of artists to observe a brain dissection at the Parkinson’s UK Brain Bank at Hammersmith Hospital. It would prove to be pivotal to this new work. Before the dissection began I asked if I could hold the brain as a tribute to Helen Chadwick’s brilliant 1991 Self Portrait where she impossibly holds her brain in her hands. What I hadn’t expected was that the brain would feel so strange, so heavy and so very cold.

“Holding the brain was a moment of total connection with the brain as object… the cold rounded intestine-feeling outer edge of the brain feels etched in the memory of my hands. But it was not just an object – I cradled it like a baby, protective, respectful of holding “someone” – someone very vulnerable in this disembodied state. The object momentarily became the person in my hands.” Susan Aldworth, November 2011.

I watched the dissection but I couldn’t forget the sensation of holding the brain. I began to wonder if it would be possible to print from the brain itself? It would be a definitive portrait of someone– an image of the self composed solely from the marks of the brain itself. The scale of the work changed because the human brain is the size it is.

JS What made you think about etching from the brain?

SA: During the dissection of a brain, the slices are arranged in a very formal way on a metal tray. This started me thinking – what if that tray was an etching plate? What marks would I get from the brain slices?  Would it be ethical to use a human brain to print from? To me, the work would be the culmination of more than a decade of research and experimentation. These images would reflect my obsession with the dependence of the Self on the physical brain. This print would be a radical departure, a challenge to the concept of what a portrait could be; an imprint of the person.

I was given ethical approval to make a suite of etchings printed directly from a human brain, by the Parkinson’s UK Brain Bank at Hammersmith Hospital. We would work under strict supervision and with clear guidelines.

JS: Did you have any expectations of what the results might be when printing from a human brain?

SA: Not really. I wanted to see what was possible and initially it was pure experimentation. I worked with master printer Nigel Oxley on this project and at the beginning we determined that there would not be any drawn marks on the plates and hoped that the form of the brain would emerge from the etching process.

The first experiment we made in the studio for Transience was to print from a fresh lamb’s brain, sourced from Smithfield Market. The consistency and texture of a fresh brain is surprisingly soft, fluid and greasy.  Once it has been in formaldehyde, the flesh hardens and goes smooth. What we learned from this first experiment is that technically we could get the authentic shape we wanted without any drawn marks at all. A brain is mainly made from fat, so we used the fatty surface of the fresh brain to make greasy marks on the zinc etching plate. This worked well and, where the big arteries emerged from the brain, there were some beautiful slightly raised marks etched onto the plate.  We rejected these first etchings for the exhibition, but they do have a unique quality.

Transience, however, is about the human brain, and although these early experiments were useful, the preserved slices of human brain were of a completely different texture.  This presented us with a possible problem as the surface of the slices appeared completely smooth to the eye. We wondered if we would get any surface texture off them.

JS: You told me that you only had the human brain slices for two days. Was this long enough to get the results you hoped to achieve?

SA: The two days of platemaking were imbued with a series of happy accidents. The experiment proved to be more successful than we had dared hope.

The brain slices were of different shapes and sizes – some half sections shaped like conch shells, others clearly showing the two halves of the brain. Etching is a convoluted and tricky series of processes. However much you plan, you are still at the mercy of the unpredictable – room temperature, strength of acid, the way the paper has absorbed the water and the way the ink sits on the plate. But serendipity is part of the process which is why artists love it. The most technical part for me is making the plates. We had just two days with the human brain. Each plate seemed to offer a different result. Compositionally, the brain slices seemed to find their right place on the plates. The surfaces of the slices unexpectedly proved to be very textural, full of secret marks which we only discovered through the etching process.

Working with a human brain was a transformative and emotional experience. The images revealed themselves gradually through this very ancient process and the prints, although taken from a dead cross-section, seemed to expose a consciousness at work.. We produced five good plates during the short time that we were allowed to work with this material.

JS: Making the etching plates is just the first part of the process. Could you tell from the plates that the prints would be interesting and good enough to exhibit?

SA: They looked promising – but the proof of a plate is in the print. We experimented with colour and tone as well as technique until the images worked individually. The first small prints needed colour to come alive but the three larger etchings worked well simply printed black. The contrast between the black and the white of the paper was dynamic, suggesting a visual equivalent of a consciousness. It was as if we had captured something more than flesh. They have a three dimensional and a somewhat spiritual quality. In a sense, they are the complete opposite of a scan which is a digitilised version of a brain . This is the real stuff. They are quite simply astonishing portraits of being human.

JS: You have produced a suite of digital photographic prints called Passing Thoughts as well as the Transienceetchings? How did they evolve?

SA: Something happened in the studio that made me realise that I could make a different type of print from the etchings whilst still printing directly from the brain slice. The result is the fifteen digital photographic prints which make up the Passing Thoughts suite.

The transformation in these prints from the flat brain slice to mysterious object was thrilling. Passing Thoughts 3 and 4 appear to be translucent shells held in a heavily textured background. I don’t think people will know what they are looking at. I hope that they will remain mysterious. They are unaltered photographs – authentic, strange and beautiful pictures of a human brain.

JS: You describe the prints as fleeting, could you explain this further?

SA: They seem to capture a moment – and this we caught on camera in the studio when we were working with the brain slices. The images revealed themselves and then disappeared in seconds. They were transient and disappeared like a thought. We did not own that brain, it was lent to us. It made its marks and then it went.

JS: So the body of work in Transience is the result of an experiment?

SA: Yes. The prints are unique and we will never be able to get those marks again. They are important to me in that they bridge my interest in both the philosophy of mind and the physical human brain.  Originally my intention was to just look at the brain as object. But the brain, in a funny way, turned from object to subject as we were making the work. So, they are not just anatomical works, they are about the transience of self.

Jill Sheridan is an Independent Curator.