Inspired by neuro-scientific imagery, Susan Aldworth's experimental printmaking explores the relationship between our physical brain and our sense of self. Her portraits of three people with epilepsy are now showing at the National Portrait Gallery until 1 September. Nicole Fordham-Hodges went to see this haunting, thought-provoking exhibition.
What is human consciousness? How can 'who we are' be represented by portraiture in the light of modern neuroscience? Printmaker Susan Aldworth made these portraits after her own experience of a diagnostic brainscan. After looking into her brain on a monitor, she wrote of knowing ' in that moment, whilst watching myself think, with absolute certainty, that my brain is all I am.'
She went on to work with three sitters with epilepsy. The resulting portraits are each composed of nine reverse monochrome prints, with chine-colle. Made using brain scans, digital photography, EEGs, freehand marks and imprints from nature, they give arresting impressions of emotional and physical selves.
Max's portrait has his calm poised face at the centre, eyes shut. Above it is a digital image of his hands in meditative pose. Two huge eyes are at either side, overseeing the portrait, alongside the patterns of an EEG, its brainwaves merging into the script of the Magna Carta, one of Max's interests. The patterns of both EEG and written script are echoed in the keys of a piano, which themselves echo the line of Max's teeth. This is the data, the mysterious pattern, the signs, which make up Max's interior and exterior life.
These signs are linked by Aldworth's freehand marks and imprints of natural material – skeletal leaves, lengths of wool. Her dots and swirls are playful and expansive, suggesting brainwaves, suggesting constellations of matter. The overall impression is of a man on an experimental journey, a man who is at the centre of his own experiment in consciousness. And yet Max's feet at the foot of the portrait are reminiscent of the crucifixion. There's a small mark – a stigmata? - in one. These portraits make me think of the Turin shroud. The process is similar too: these are chemical imprints, they represent the marks left by body and mind, vital-signs pressed flat: maps of the soul.
Sitter Max Eilenberg writes of epilepsy: "It is discontinuity, interruption, silence, anti-narrative... there's no way to tell it from the inside."
You can only describe the moment before an absence, he explains, or the hours and days after an absence as "your identity begins to crystalise again."
In Fiona's portrait the digital image of a wary-eyed face is partly blanked out. The torn and stuck-on feet at the base of the image are uneven and blackened. Part of her EEG data is also blacked out with torn paper. At the top of the portrait there's a brain-scan topped with feathery brainwave impressions, but the brain is hemmed in with a firm line. A line around a body-like shape gives a sense of imprisonment to this portrait. Two huge ears positioned at either side add to an impression of sensory intensity, an acute receptivity, a soul-map which points inwards.
Elisabeth's portrait seems at first sight the most physically representative. It uses x-rays of her hands and feet, connected by nerve-like lines, up to a scan of her brain with a halo of dots and lively swirls, which seem harmoniously scattered in blank space. But the impression is of a deliberate link-making, a piecing back together: perhaps the 'recrystalisation' of which Max writes. An image of Elisabeth's face is placed strangely below her ribcage, where her womb should be. Aldworth writes that this represents Elisabeth's fear of coming off medication in order to have a child.
Elisabeth's portrait incorporates one of Aldworth's own angiograms. This could be seen as an expression of empathy, or else a statement of the communality of our human condition: life is the space between two forgettings.
Aldworth's belief that 'my brain is who I am' does not make these portraits reductive. The experience of epilepsy is used as a window to explore the mysteries of all of our consciousnesses. Portraiture makes the assumption that our inner selves is revealed in outer, visible ways. Aldworth's portraits play with this assumption, they explore our 'vital signs', and yet acknowledge the mysterious impossibility of capturing our interior lives
SUSAN ALDWORTH: THE PORTRAIT ANATOMISED
National Portrait Gallery, London
7 March - 1 September 2013
Lecture: The Portrait Anatomised: Thursday 18 April 1.15pm, National Portrait Gallery: Susan Aldworth shares her unique approach to portraiture and printmaking
Documentary of The Portrait Anatomised:
The Print Master (2012)
The Portrait Anatomised (2011)