Landscapes of the mind

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Susan Aldworth remembers the exact moment she discovered she had no soul.

The artist had collapsed on the floor of her London studio on Christmas Day in 1999 and was in a hospital where doctors were x-ray scanning her brain.

By then fully conscious, Aldworth later wrote: "I was looking into my brain in real time, live on a monitor while lying on an operating table."

Seeing the activity within as she responded to her environment, she said: "I knew from that moment that I didn't have a soul. The mind and the body are one thing and that is the brain."

Aldworth recovered with no ill effects, but the x-ray moment led to a profound change in her art. A printmaker long interested in issues of identity, she began making portraits based not on outer facial features, but on the "internal person" revealed through brain scans.

A series of these "Brainscapes" - prints she developed in 2006, based on drawings she made while observing patients undergoing brain scans at the Royal London Hospital - is among works in the exhibition "Landscapes of the Mind: Contemporary Artists Contemplate the Brain," now on view at the Williams College Museum of Art.

Curated by Betty Zimmerberg, professor of psychology at Williams, and Kathryn Price, interim associate curator at WCMA, it is on view until May 2.

An opening reception, with talks by Zimmerberg and Price, will take place Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at the museum.

A public symposium bringing together artists and neuroscientists for a discussion of intersections of art and science is scheduled for March 13.

Aldworth is one of four artists in the exhibition. The others are Jessica Rankin, an Australian textile artist interested in language, who embroiders images of neurological activity and blocks of words on giant organdy panels; Katy Schimert, an American multimedia artist who has built floor and wall installations of brain structures and activity, as well as sculpted heads painted "to represent sensations, dreams and nightmares inside"; and Andrew Carnie, a British multimedia artist, who created a " Magic Forest" of neurons projected onto see- through fabric curtains in the darkened WCMA rotunda." Visitors can walk around and through the curtains and experience the neuron shapes growing brighter and then fading in intensity as if undergoing a life cycle.

Separate displays in the adjoining Media Field Gallery let visitors see microscopic views of animal brain tissue, the life cycle of the brain in photos and the comparative shapes of animal brains from an alligator to a pigeon to a dog.

Despite the basis in neuroscience, all of the work in the exhibition represents an "artistic" or metaphorical response to the brain, its activity and the location of the self, Zimmerberg emphasized in an interview at WCMA Monday morning. The artists are not documenting the topic in the way scientists would.

Aldworth, for example, is not simply reproducing the angiograms of patients she observed at the hospital, but, rather, creating etchings based on drawings she made on site.

Carnie, likewise, found the microscopic images of actual neurons unworkable for his " Magic Forest" piece, so he redrew them and manipulated them in Photoshop for the effect he wanted.

It is this intersection of science and art that Zimmerberg said piqued her interest in organizing an exhibition that could also be a teaching opportunity for the college.

She said interest in the brain and the ways humans perceive is widespread in contemporary culture, and she thought a look at the ways in which an artistic brain perceives would be intriguing Lacking contacts in the art world, she turned to Price, who eagerly took on the assignment.

The two women sifted through 20-some contemporary artists they found on the Internet who were focusing on issues of brain activity and identity.

Concentrating on those who showed a real commitment to the topic and who would serve the museum's teaching mission, Price said they visited exhibitions and winnowed the 20 down to four - a workable number for the museum space they had.

Zimmerberg had no problem, she said, identifying with Aldworth's conclusion that the brain and the self are one.

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"If you are a neuroscientist," she said, "everything we think, see and imagine is the brain ? [and] where the mind is, is where the self resides."

An image of brain activity can be as individual as a conventional portrait of facial features.

That's partly because the brain changes in response to behavior, Zimmerberg said, pointing to the different shapes of, say, a dog brain attuned to smells, and that of a pigeon needful of balance.

Even this writer's questions brought about changes to his brain, she said in the time it took to pose them.

Price likened the images in the show to maps, or topographical photographs or forests - therefore the landscape reference in the title.

Carnie, in particular, she said, with his screen projections "brings the idea of a landscape to life as if you are wandering through a forest."

Zimmerberg said she hopes the exhibition will offer viewers "multiple ways to think about the mind" and to consider the idea of "the brain and the mind as one."

"I hope," she said, "it will pose as many questions as it does answers."

To reach Charles Bonenti: (413) 496-6211; cbonenti@berkshireeagle.com

On exhibit

What: "Landscapes of the Mind: Contemporary Artists Contemplate the Brain."

Where: Williams College Museum of Art, Main Street, Williamstown.

When: Through May 2.

Hours: Tuesday - Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays, 1 to 5 p.m.

Admission: Free

Programs: Opening reception with panel discussion of "Landscape and Memory," 5:30 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 25.

Gallery talk, "Models of the Mind," 4 p.m. Tuesday, March 2.

Family program on art and science, 1 to 4 p.m., Saturday, March 6.

Symposium of artists and neuroscientists on intersections of art and science; 1 to 5 p.m., Saturday, March 13.

Gallery talk, "The Oedipal Blind Spot," 4 p.m., Tuesday, March 16, Information: (413) 597-2429; www.wcma.org.


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