The Wellcome Collection is becoming a very familiar sight to me these days, I have visited many times and it is always surprising and challenging, which is why I return again and again. I have come to see ‘Tracing the Edges of Consciousness’ exhibition which is part of a year long exploration into the human conscious. I have already had great fun with ‘YellowbluePink’ and delved into the ‘Tibet’s Secret Temple’ – all are part of their ‘States of Mind’ series of exhibitions and events that are unashamedly complex and thought provoking.
I enter the exhibition on press day and I have 30 minutes or so before the curator Emily Sargent’s introduction. To be honest, first impressions are that I find it hard to connect with the exhibition – lots of words, lots of complicated terms and themes. I have never considered the intricacies of the conscious mind before, it is not called the ‘hard problem’ for nothing and no one ever said it was going to be easy.
In the first section, ‘Science/Soul’ I find myself taking pictures of people looking at things, just observing their keen interest, I look at a display where a minute ago I saw a man poring over documents. I see the letter and work of Francis Crick, not content with discovering DNA, his later work focussed on neurobiology. I am trying to concentrate but I can only think back to a few weeks ago, when I got to stand in his office at Cambridge University where he discovered DNA. I wonder how much the physical environment can influence the mind and allow thoughts to connect.
I come to the alphabet up on the wall by artist Jean Holabird, I read the label and it tells me “Vladimir Nabokov’s Alphabet in color”. There is no other information but I look at the letters and make my own connection – synaesthesia, a condition where one cognitive or sensory pathway can lead to automatic experiences of cognitive of sensory pathways in another. My eldest daughter has autism and the condition is quite often linked, we have had a few instances in the past where we think my daughter may be connecting smells with colours, I think it might often be why she has such an extreme reaction to them. There is nothing on this wall that tells me this, I am unaware that Nabokov is actually a famous synaesthete, it is only afterwards that I find that out.
I have turn to the display case in front of the alphabet to read and understand more, as Nabokov describes in his own words what it synaesthesia feels like, but slowly I am being drawn into this exhibition by the connections it makes to my own life. There is a screen up on the wall that has an interactive programme created in conjunction with the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex that can teach you synaesthesia. I am not sure how I feel about this, synaesthesia can be such a visceral experience for those whose mind mixes visual stimuli with colours or noises with tastes. Turning it into a kind of parlour trick that can be taught in a few minutes feels like it trivialises the condition and I wonder how someone with synesthesia would feel to see this section of the exhibition.
In the next section ‘Sleep/Awake’ there are lots of concepts to take on board and for an exhibition which is not overly big, I feel like there is a lot crammed in. We jump from mesmerism to hypnotism, alien abduction and somnambulism, I am feeling a little overwhelmed again. Luckily the curator is ready to give her introductory talk, and from her words I can see how important it is to take this exhibition as part of the whole season. ‘YellowBluePink’ by Ann Veronica Janssens was the first chance to discover how you feel when a sense is disorientated, how confusion and unfamiliarity can affect your conscious experience. Remembering my visit to the ‘mist room’ is giving me more insight into how the Wellcome Collection are trying to investigate consciousness. The curator talks about the boundary between knowledge and experience, perhaps that is why I am struggling! I have little knowledge or experience.
But it is moving into the third section on ‘Language/Memory’ that I really start connecting with the exhibition. In the introduction it asks how do we interpret the conscious experience of those who are non-verbal? It is something that I often think about when working with museums who are putting on programmes for children with complex needs. If a child is non-verbal how do we evaluate the effectiveness of a workshop and how the child has enjoyed themselves? The introductory panel goes on to mention loss of memory as in the case of dementia and considers how that loss can affect the conscious mind and experience.
I wonder about my aunt with dementia, it is hard to have a conversation with her now, repetition of the same questions where she cannot remember what happened yesterday or 5 minutes ago but does recall certain memories that stand out like icebergs in a cold swirling sea. If what makes us are our experiences and how we feel about our environment such as the familiarity of home, if that is stripped away how does that effect our conscious experience. How does she experience trips out with so much unfamiliarity, I am perhaps beginning to understand how this cruel disease has changed her, not just erased her memories. I really wish there had been more expansion on this topic, it is close to my heart and I fear I am looking for answers that aren’t really there.
In the section on language and memory Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document is a joy, a series of drawing charting her changing relationship with her son as he begins to develop speech. They stretch out like mini Rosetta Stones, instead of ancient languages we see his first attempts at mark making, her analysis of her son’s attempts and finally a diary entry. I am pretty much at the same stage with my 5 year old who has just started school, his mark making and learning to write is not an easy thing for him and after a reluctant start it is a joy to see. These mile stones we seek out and wait for so eagerly, I read a lot about autism and how with a neurodiverse mind these conventional miles stones are often never met. The analytical nature of Kelly’s work is never far from the mind of an autism parent who dwells on every utterance or developmental checkpoint.
The final section ‘Being/Not Being’ is actually in a sense quite disturbing. If you have a fear of going under the knife whilst anaesthetised perhaps best to miss Aya Ben Ron’s film ‘Still Under Treatment’ showing the moments in which patients fall unconscious under general anaesthetic. It is the final part of the exhibition and a film that I find most, I am trying to find the right word, I guess, troubling. Aya Ben Ron shares another film called ‘Shift’, filmed at the head injury department of Reuth Medical Centre in Tel Aviv over a period of two years. The film consists of three chapters each told from a different perspective that explore the care, personal stories and ethics of acting for patients who have disorders of consciousness.
The film is 29 minutes long, and I found myself sitting through the whole thing, the first chapter made me feel the film was voyeuristic and almost exploitative, the second made me feel so sad and the final chapter made me question how I had felt in the first two sections. It is well worth sitting through the film, it added immeasurably to my experience of the whole exhibition.
James Peto, Head of Public Programmes at the Wellcome, talks of ‘States of Mind’ as “looking into the intriguing areas around the edges”, and ‘Tracing the Edges of Consciousness’ certainly opens up the range and uncertainty we find there. I began by struggling to engage in this exhibition but I am left deep in thought, emotionally a little drained and so glad we have art and artists able to bring out these complex questions in ways that often text and books cannot. Most of all I am glad the Wellcome Collection opens up and takes on these questions because it is always the most challenging and thought provoking place I visit. The simple fact that exhibits are free also means you can return time and time again and make your own connections when the time is right for you.
Tracing the Edges of Consciousness runs from 4 Feb 2016-16 October 2016 for opening times please see the website.
There is also a varied programme of events to compliment the States of Mind season please see the website for more details.