THE WELLCOME COLLECTION, LONDON, 29th MARCH – 17th JUNE 2012
People familiar with this blog will already know I get excited whenever there’s a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, and that I find endlessly inspiring the permanent displays of Henry Wellcome’s original (and brilliantly insane) collections of medical tools, weird sexual paraphernalia, mannequins, ex voto paintings, and so forth. Brains both does and doesn’t live up to this pedigree. It doesn’t in the sense that the customary offering of interpolated contemporary art works is very disappointing, tokenistic and weak, overly reliant on the obvious and figurative (it’s a brain! made of glass or bronze or plastic!) and on bringing in the usual artist suspects like Annie Cattrell. I like her work, but come on, I think we can do better than just Googling “brain artist”: there are loads of young artists (and scientists) doing fascinating, exciting sci-art work. There are also existing works that deal in much more evocative and illuminating ways with the interplay of intangible mind and physical brain matter than does any of the contemporary art in this particular exhibition. It all just seemed a bit of an afterthought, unlike previous exhibitions in which the contemporary work was genuinely cogent and intriguing– and often by artists many people would not already be familiar with.
The historical element of the exhibition, by contrast, deals very well with what could have just been a parade of brain after brain after brain. This aspect was indeed as fascinating and inspiring as I would expect from Wellcome, although it still felt a little sparse by comparison with its predecessors. Even so I usually get more ideas, excitement and inspiration from spending a hour in one of these exhibitions than I get from a month of contemporary art private views; Brains was no exception. Perhaps excessively and dangerously inspiring to me, because now I really have a burning desire for a wax dog brain replica with a turned wooden handle like the one displayed in this exhibition. Hint to the Wellcome shop: Pens, postcards and magnets are crap. I would, however, buy from you without question a wax dog brain replica on a convenient Victoriana handle.
There are the expected brains in jars, to be sure, but with intelligent context that steers us away from any hint of just gawping at human bits. I know I have a macabre sense of humour, so I may be projecting something that isn’t really there, but I also very much enjoyed and laughed about the insouciant comments on various morbid items, like a highly disturbing Victorian trephination set described with a hint of envy as “fine gentlemanly possessions” or the brain of “gentleman, scholar, murderer” Edward H. Rulloff spoken of- with endearingly boyish enthusiasm- as being “one of the heaviest extant preserved brains.” It felt to me as if many of the statements would benefit from an exclamation mark. ONE OF THE HEAVIEST EXTANT PRESERVED BRAINS!
Presumably these texts were written by the curator, Marius Kwint, and they’re certainly a far cry from the art world’s curatorial statements that I often castigate here on this blog, being everything a curator’s explanation should be: brief, informative, factual and unpretentious. I do wish, though, that he’d dug properly into the incredibly rich seam of material in popular culture, film and literature about brains, brain transplants, brain anxiety, brains detached from bodies, etc. rather than just whacking up a few (un-annotated) B Movie posters at the end.
PS: I saw the noted neuroscientist and total-bloody-raving-right-wing-lunatic-who-thinks-video-games-destroy-children-and-society Professor Susan Greenfield at this exhibition. She wasn’t at all interested in Edward H. Rulloff’s heaviest extant preserved brain, despite several attempts by her companion to engage her in discussion about it. Another damning mark against her character. I bet she wasn’t excited about the wax dog brain either. I feel sorry for her. Tragic.