The brain and perception are, in the words of Buster Poindexter, “hot, hot, hot,” with the buzz they are generating in certain reaches of the art world. Curators Koan Jeff Baysa and Caitlin Hardy, both medical doctors, should be commended for surveying this vast subject with their exhibition Seeing Ourselves, though it proffers mixed results. The conundrum for this kind of exposition is figuring out what is and what is not art, what represents visual creativity and what falls into the category of pure visual information.
According to James Elkins, visual culture has superseded the practice of more traditional fine arts, thereby making ordinary visual information like medical X-rays, graphs, charts and advertisements fodder for artistic practice. In their two-floor exhibition at the new MUSECPMI (CPMI stands for Center of Photography and the Moving Image), Baysa and Hardy traverse these distinctions by presenting multifaceted representations of the brain.
The show negotiates two modes of interpretation. The first deals with the more traditional imaging of the brain’s soft matter and skull, in the Heideggerian sense of the thing as it is (i.e. this is your brain). An example of this is Hugh Hayden’s “Untitled” (2012) skull with soft dreads. The second interpretation presents the brain as we imagine it (i.e. this is your brain on drugs, as represented in the 1980s anti-drug commercial by a frying egg.) This mode of analogy allows for a wide range of representations of cognition and perception.
These more interpretative works raise significant questions, such as: how do we perceive what we perceive? Are we our cognition or our memory? What is our essence, and how can science and art capture that? The curators decided to loosely use the five senses of taste, vision, hearing, touch, and smell, as well as proprioception, or the sense of the body occupying space, to categorize these questions.
Peter Garfield’s video “The Velocity of Concurrence” shows a woman playing a brain-powered game that relies on her mental activity to control the height of a blue ball suspended in a column of air, an eerily scientific and strangely complex act. Virgil Wong, Akshay Kapur and Jessica Lacson’s “The Medical Mirror,” the most fun piece in the show, is an actual application that uses 3-D imaging to let you view an animation of your brain and spinal chord dancing around in real time. The techno-geek porn award, which I alternately subtitle “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar,” goes to TheVisualMd, which shows a technicolor animation of a woman’s brain during a seven-minute orgasm.
Joyce Cutler Shaw explores moving images of her own fMri scans with “What Comes to Mind, Tunnel Books One, Two and Three.” Shaw placed the scans into sculptural objects, where they continuously loop. There are videos of stereolithography, a process that uses laser lights and a pool of white plastic goo to make, in this instance, replicas of human fetuses. Some of the work in the show is strongly scientific, such as interpretations of nerve dendrites, and tiptoes into the realm of straight medical illustration. One couple, sculptors Christophe Berdaguer and Marie Pejus, worked with high-end scent designers Christophe Laudamiel and Christoph Hornetz to create “Jardin Addiction,” clear glass medusa curls that gave off a fragrance. Visitors can dip strips of paper into a small container to smell one of their mixtures — synthetic opium, which smelled burnt, woody and moldy. Too bad there was no animated video of the brain for that one.
Seeing Ourselves includes allegorical pieces, such as a work by Yale art-school graduate Michael Madore speculating on what Asperger’s syndrome looks like from the inside. Madore’s diptych “Cortical minicolumns/’Infrasonic’ and Cingulate gyrus/’Quasi-mutual'” meshes art therapy with cognitive science.
Nancy Burson, best know for her morphing technology “Human Race Machine,” a big hit at NYU’s Grey Gallery in 2002, has two small works that resemble Kirlian photography. One of them, “The Difference Between Negative and Positive Thought,” was made with a Gas Discharge Visualization camera. The question, of course, is how to tell which is the negative thought and which is positive?
Seeing Ourselves continues until tomorrow April 14, 2012 at MUSECPMI (580 Eighth Avenue, 6th and 7th floors, Garment District, Manhattan).