Fiona Johnstone, PhD candidate at Birkbeck University, writes: Susan Aldworth’s latest exhibition, Transience, at GV Arts, London, until 20th July, is based on a suite of etchings taken from slices of human brain tissue. The project is a collaboration between Aldworth, master printer Nigel Oxley, and the Parkinson’s UK Brain Bank, and is the first time that a human brain has ever been used to print from directly. Aldworth was granted just two days of working with the brains, which had to be accompanied by a member of staff from the Brain Bank at all times.
The cross sections of brain slices were placed directly onto the metal etching plate, which interacted with the natural fattiness of the tissue and formaldehyde in which it was preserved, leaving a greasy, chemical trace. The brain was then removed, and the etching plate dipped in acid to fix the impression. The slices of tissue were not harmed by the process, and were returned to the Brain Bank where they will be used for research purposes.
The results are otherworldly; the brain is revealed as fragile and luminescent, an intricately detailed lunar landscape that emits an almost phosphorescent glow. Like the brain, etching is a unique process; although more than one print can be taken from a single etching plate, each will vary in subtle and innumerable ways. Viewing these images induces a strong feeling of the uncanny: one is literally looking into the mind of another person (perhaps it is not the eyes but the brain that provides a window to the soul?). The impulse to reach out and touch the prints was almost overwhelming; as the tangible traces of one of the most significant organs of the human body, they are compellingly physical artefacts that exude an almost palpable sense of material presence.
Aldworth has previously worked with medical images and technologies on a number of projects. Reassembling the Self, shown last year at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle, investigated the experience of schizophrenia through a series of lithographs, and though a film based on Daniel Paul Schreber’s seminal text Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. (The film is included in the current exhibition at GV Art).
The Portrait Anatomised, at the National Portrait Gallery until 1st September, similarly uses imagery from scans and EEGs to produce portraits of three people with epilepsy. Portraiture is central to Aldworth’s practice, and she considers the brain etchings to be portraits of the donors. Although unconventional, in that these ‘portraits’ convey neither the appearances nor personalities of their anonymous subjects, in another sense this is the most direct form of portraiture possible, representing perhaps the most unique aspect of an individual. Prior to Transience, Aldworth had suggested that she felt the direction of her work was moving away from the body as a visceral object, towards a more abstracted understanding of the human form. Transience is an attempt to rectify that, reminding viewers of the existence of the real, holistic, bodies often concealed behind the schematic representations provided by medical scans and EEGs.
Transience runs from 6 June until 20 July 2013 at GV Art London. For the address and opening hours please visit the gallery web site.
Fiona Johnstone is a PhD Candidate and sessional lecturer in the department of History of Art and Screen Media at Birkbeck, University of London. Her thesis “Alternative AIDS Portraiture: Mark Morrisroe, Robert Blanchon and Felix Gonzalez-Torres” examines self-portraits by three HIV positive artists working in New York in the late 1980s and early 1990s. She has recently contributed to the journal Third Text and the exhibition catalogue Changing Difference: Queer Politics and Shifting Identities, and is co-editor of the online postgraduate arts journal Dandelion.