Preview: Mind as matter

The human brain is endlessly fascinating, much misunderstood and disconcertingly squidgy. A new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London, Brains: the Mind as Matter will bring together both new commissions and artefacts from the archives in characteristic interdisciplinary style - tools used to examine the brain sit alongside works from contemporary artists, human specimens are accompanied by short films, even Einstein's grey matter will make an appearance. The show's guest curator, Marius Kwint, makes it clear the approach isn't a purely scientific one: "The exhibition takes a look at the history of scientific practices rather than the technicalities of the brain's processes. We look at the physical matter of the brain as a way to unravel cultural practices. In many ways, I suppose you could call it the material culture of science".

To organise such a large quantity of material, the exhibition is divided into four sections: "Measuring/Classifying" looks at the history of how societies have attempted to use brain assessments to grade humans according to race, intelligence, class and other social attributes; "Mapping/Modelling" features a variety of representations of the brain's anatomy, including early visualisations by Reisch, Vesalius and Descartes; "Cutting/Treating" explores the history of surgical intervention, or as Kwint calls it, "a glorified form of DIY"; finally, "Giving/Taking" looks at the politics of brain donation and harvesting in more detail.

It's not all gore and taboos, however. "There is, we hope, an upbeat finish," says Kwint. "The final section features interviews with people who have decided to donate their brains to medical research after they've died, and highlights the real need for more research into neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's and dementia, the likes of which are reaching near epidemic levels." The exhibition will also draw attention to the lack of progress in the development of treatments for brain tumours, an area that continues to lag behind research into other forms of cancer.

The works range from a 5000-year-old skull to contemporary pieces from Helen Pynor and Andrew Carnie. So why are we still so in awe of this particular organ? "With all our technology," says Kwint, "it is still impossible to wholly understand the processes of the brain. Its capabilities are not dependent on genetics - the brain is in constant dialogue with the environment, and I think that's the thing that fascinates people. It's the almost incomprehensible idea that this tissue, this object, can produce such strong and vivid emotions within us."

It all sounds very enlightening, but won't visitors find it all a bit gruesome? Kwint is reassuring: "We don't intend to shock, but I'm sure it will provoke some strong reactions! It's certainly anatomically unflinching - we want it to be a truly visceral experience."

"Brains: the Mind as Matter" opens on 29 March at the Wellcome Collection.

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"Samphire": a poem by Alison Brackenbury

"Yet how it waved, in coast’s late light. . . ."

My grandmother could cook it, for
she grew up by that dangerous shore
where the sea skulked without a wall

where I have seen it, tough as grass,
where silent men with rods trooped past
its salty ranks, without a glance.

Lear’s gatherer hangs perilously.
Why? So much is closed to me.
Did Shakespeare ever hear the sea?

Once, said my father, far inland,
from friend or stall, one clutch was found,
steamed, in my grandmother’s great pan.

Once, a smooth leaflet from a shop
claimed they could “source it”, but they stocked
bunched, peppered cress – Another gap.

Yet how it waved, in coast’s late light,
stalks I will never taste, could make
tenderly dark, my coast’s sly snake,
salt on my tongue, before I wake.

Alison Brackenbury is an award-winning poet. Her ninth collection, Skies, will be published by Carcanet in March

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle