Much more than just grey matter

"Brains: The Mind as Matter" at the Wellcome Collection

Unassuming wisps of words allude to a homely traditional headache remedy, but their tendrils surround something a great deal stranger than an old wives’ tale: a brain emanating from a gloomy abyss like a deep sea creature, striving towards a hopeful light atop a lengthy spinal cord. In many ways, Helen Pynor’s Headache, a ghostly glass-mounted image, encapsulates the tone of the Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition as one that seeks to reconcile the idea that we know so little about a piece of tissue that provides us with so much, and one which explores an organ that has catalysed dark practices and dogmas, but also harbours huge potential as a force for good.

 

The curators’ intention was to explore the “importance of the real object”, and it is in this vein that Brains presents the organ in every form imaginable: there’s much more on offer than just your standard wax models (lifelike though they are), with 3D films, technicolor digital micrographs, artistic impressions, even an MRI scan with a QR code (smartphone compatible) scattered throughout the space. There are also references to the brain’s astounding capacity: a brain wafer (paper thin mouse specimens laminated on tape) contains as much data as the whole of Google Earth when scanned to a high resolution, and a magnetic resonance imaging video by Daniel Magulies and Chris Sharp shows the fluctuating brain activity of a subject who listens to Stravinsky whilst digesting Kant’s Critique of Judgement.  

 

Our objectification of the brain tells the story not only of the development of neuroscience, but also shows how our continuing attempts to understand it shift according to cultural and historical conditions. As guest curator Marius Kwint says, “what goes on between brains is as important as the content of the brain itself”.  The exhibition doesn’t shy away from the fact that brain research has been used to inflict notorious agendas and doctrines, namely that of eugenics in Nazi Germany, where the murders of disabled children and adults were often passed off as pneumonia and subsequently corroborated by Hitler’s efficient bureaucratic state machinery. But the brain has brought out the best as well as the worst in humanity: a newspaper cutting from the 1920’s asking “Have men more brains than women?” is placed, almost triumphantly, next to the brain of women’s suffragist Helen H Gardner, and the research papers of surgeon Burt Green Wilder are on display, documents which led to resolutions on equal opportunities and state schooling for black Americans.

 

Although there are four sections, the feeling is less one of abrupt divisions between them but complete freedom to wander at leisure. Indeed, the exhibition’s designer Calum Storrie wanted to encourage visitors to make “accidental connections”. Windows and doorways opening up into other ideas pepper the space, almost mirroring the structure of the brain and its infinite network of synapses.

 

Despite the range of objects and artifacts, it’s not just a brain collector’s paradise. There are subtly sensitive elements which are as emotive as they are aesthetically intriguing: the incredibly moving self-portraits of William Utermohlen convey a man rendered hopeless by the onset of dementia, his final work portraying a face tragically collapsing as the self is lost. Yet this sense of despair is tempered by Ania Dabrowska’s photos and accounts of three people who wished to donate their brains to scientific research. It all makes for a thought-provoking journey. Brains goes beyond just a visual feast, and quietly adds to the sense of gravitas with which we approach our most mysterious organ.

"Headache" by Helen Pynor. Photo: Courtesy of the Artist and GV Art
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Moving on up: why Ira Sachs is king of the "Rightmovie"

Little Men reminds us that Sachs is the the cinematic poet laureate of the gentrification drama.

There’s a nauseating moment at the end of the 1986 film Stand By Me when the narrator reflects on his childhood. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12,” he sighs. “Jesus, does anyone?” That sort of retroactive idealism is a temptation for any coming-of-age movie, but the writer-director Ira Sachs resists it in Little Men. His film charts the blossoming friendship between two 13-year-old boys, Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri), without stooping to suggest that what they have is somehow purer than anything in the adult world. It isn’t – it’s just subject to different forces. Sachs captures the concentrated joy of youthful larks and loyalty but he is as wise as Fassbinder ever was to the impact of economic and social pressures on our emotional choices.

It’s clear that the film will be discreet from the way the cinematographer, Óscar Durán, shoots Jake and Tony from behind during their first meeting, as though permitting the boys a modicum of privacy away from our prying eyes. Sachs has a knack for finding those pockets of quiet in the hubbub. The opening shot puts the reserved, feminine-faced Jake at his school desk; he’s the still point in the midst of chaos. He takes whatever life – or, in this case, his classmates – can throw at him.

Then Jake gets a bombshell: his grand­father has died. His father, Brian (Greg Kinnear), and mother, Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), move with him into the old man’s building in Brooklyn. Downstairs is a cluttered dress shop that was being leased to Tony’s mother, Leonor (Paulina García), at a cut-price rate that failed to take into account the property boom. Jake’s father considers himself a sensitive man – he is an actor – ­preparing for a production of The Seagull but his life has just become The Cherry Orchard. Family members advise him to jack up the rent or boot out Leonor.

Kinnear conveys the honest terror of a kind man staring into the depths of his conscience and not liking what he finds. García, the star of the superb Gloria, is brave enough to make her character actively disagreeable at times. In her most complex scene, she sacrifices the moral high ground and overplays her hand with a single rash remark.

Yet Little Men belongs to the little men. Sensing the tremors of discord between their families, Jake and Tony stick together. They skate through the streets in a blur as the camera struggles to keep sight of them behind trees and parked cars while the propulsive score by Dickon Hinchliffe of Tindersticks urges them on.

As Tony, Barbieri is the find of the film. He’s twitchy and gangly, his voice a scratchy drawl that belongs to a bourbon-soaked barfly. No one has swaggered through Brooklyn with such aplomb since John Travolta at the beginning of Saturday Night Fever. Then he’ll do something impulsive, such as hugging his sobbing mother by wrapping his long arms all the way around her and clutching her head to his chest, and suddenly he’s a baby again.

With this and Love Is Strange – about a middle-aged gay couple forced to live separately due to financial difficulties – Sachs has appointed himself the cinematic poet laureate of gentrification-based drama. (Call it the dawn of the Rightmovie.) But he isn’t a tub-thumper. He and his co-writer, Mauricio Zacharias, show simply and plainly how money alters everything. Durán shoots the Brooklyn locations in a crisp, summery light that mirrors this straightforwardness. Any poetry springs from the everyday, such as the night-time shot in which blurred blobs of colour from streetlights and headlamps suggest dabs of paint on a palette.

Even the editing (by Mollie Goldstein) speaks volumes. The sudden cut from the gaudy clamour of a disco, where Tony wears a glow band around his neck like a fallen halo, to the chill calm of the subway platform evokes acutely that plunging feeling when the fun is over. As the boys wait for the train, their faces are framed in unsmiling repose in a shot that calls to mind Simon and Garfunkel on the cover of Bookends. And we all know what happened to them. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times