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Reviews

States of Mind: Tracing the edges of consciousness

Rachel Giles

Wellcome Collection, London
Until October 16, 2016

'What is consciousness?', asks the opening panel in this exhibition. 'Scientists still struggle to describe how the subjective experience of consciousness arises out of the objective tissue of a human brain.' So, indeed, does the Wellcome Collection. Rather than try to define consciousness, or current theories of it, it claims to look at 'the intriguing areas around its edges: those moments or states of being between wakefulness and sleep, feeling and anaesthesia, awareness and oblivion.' It might well have been a challenge to explore what consciousness is through a display, but what we're left with is so much 'around the edges' that it really leaves us none the wiser.

The first room, 'Science and Soul', examines 'the mind/body problem': is mind separate from the brain, from the body that the brain inhabits? We learn that Rene Descartes' dualism, which described the mind as a separate entity from the body, 'is embraced by most major religions in the world.' Displaying a dualistic view of its own, the Wellcome seems to be suggesting that religious people just believe in the soul - scientists and rational people believe in consciousness.

There are few exhibits in this first room, placed in a gigantic, queasily pink cabinet structure, (with a rippled, brain-like texture). I was hopeful that here we'd learn something about the brain itself. But this room is part history, part iconography of neuroscience: there are 'thought photographs' by Louis Darget from the late nineteenth century (he attempted to capture images of thought by pressing photographic plates up against participant's heads). There are fascinating drawings by Santiago Ramón y Cajal, hailed as 'the founder of modern neuroscience', showing the intricate tree-like structures of brain cells which he viewed under a microscope. We also have the writings of Francis Crick, who pioneered a neuroscientific basis for consciousness.

Fair enough in terms of scene setting. But next we're led down a rabbit-hole into the world of synaesthaesia, with Kandinsky's experiments with the connection between music and art, and the way Nabokov experienced words as having particular colours (re-created in an artwork by Jean Holabrad showing Nabokov's entire alphabet in colour). What we perceive via the senses are of course manifestations of consciousness. But before going off on such tangents, the show should really have defined a few parameters of how consciousness can be understood.

Things get more disorientating from here. You now enter a room called 'Sleep and Awake'. The display vacillates between populist sensationalism - news reports about murders committed by sleepwalkers, extracts from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, incubuses, alien abduction - and 'serious' art installation, such as a pillar emitting recordings of those who suffer from sleep paralysis. It's crass juxtaposition. The cultural artefacts in this section, many from Wellcome's own collection are not uninteresting - they just seem randomly selected.

In the next section, we're told 'the particular experience of being you - is a key aspect of human consciousness' - well, yes. Language and memory are tools of this experience. Interesting stuff - but how to show this? Mary Kelly's Post Partum Document is here, but it doesn't illustrate this point. Kelly's series of inscribed stone tablets, chronicling her anxiety about her child's development and whether she's a good enough mother, make uncomfortable reading, but don't explore the show's premise clearly. Nor does a sound installation, which contrasts a young boy's acquisition of language with the utterances of a stroke patient with aphasia. Behind a hospital curtain we hear disembodied voices responding to Jules Verne's A Journey to the Centre of the Earth. This, apparently, 'explores concepts of language, meaning and identity.'

In the last section, 'Being/Not Being', the show explores coma, brain injury, anaesthesia and locked-in syndrome through various films and artistic works. Some way of bringing all this together is missing. Finally, in the most stunningly unimaginative piece of curation I've ever seen, there is a copy of an NHS report, in a glossy ring binder, entitled Accidental Awareness under General Anaesthesia in the UK and Ireland, for us to peruse.

This show was a great idea, in theory. Consciousness is a hot topic. The Wellcome is well-placed to lead the interested enquirer through it, surely. But it has fallen into the trap of rummaging through its collections, seeing what it can find, and assembling them under a few key headings - rather than really trying to address 'the hard question' of consciousness. Worse, it's relied too much on disparate art installations, quite incapable of pulling some, any kind of narrative thread out of this knotted mess. There are no answers, but there are also no questions. There is neither the appropriate art, nor the appropriate science, (let alone the philosophy or religion) that would help someone explore this subject; just a mixed bag of popular cultural references. I left in an irritated, befuddled brain-fog.