Artist Susan Aldworth made prints using etching plates created directly from slices of human brain

Q&A with Susan Aldworth

Nicola Sullivan, 13.02.2017
Artist uses real brain samples to create work for exhibition
Contemporary artist Susan Aldworth talks to Museums Journal about creating etching plates directly from slices of human brain for an exhibition at Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge.

Aldworth worked with three human brain samples, including those from donors with, and without Parkinson’s disease. The etching plates she created, in partnership with David Dexter, the professor of neuropharmacology at Imperial College London and the scientific director of the Parkinson’s UK Brain Bank at Hammersmith Hospital, were used to make 22 prints.  The work is part of efforts to raise awareness of the need for neuro-pathological research. Parkinson’s disease is incurable and brain donors are in short supply.  

Realisation, which closed on 5 February, also featured the work of artist Jane Dixon, who contributed several drawings of imagined organic forms. A catalogue of the exhibition is still on sale at the museum.

How did the project come about?

I have worked closely for many years on the edge on neuroscience and philosophy. I was very interested in the relationship between the brain and sense of self, and I have done various projects around this. I’m part of the genre – art and science – a big movement in British art. I was invited by the Brain Bank in Hammersmith Hospital to go and witness a brain dissection. I’d been looking at lots of brain scans and felt that I was getting more and more alienated from the brain as an object, so I leapt at the chance [to see the dissection]. Most of the brain samples have been donated by people with Parkinson’s disease. These very generous people who have donated their bodies to science for the benefit of mankind. It was all very moving.

How do you use the dissected brain slices to create art?

The brain dissections I looked at were then given to scientists or neuroscientists who will use then to investigate the chemical make up of Parkinson’s. During the dissection they lay all the bits of brain out very formally on a stainless steel tray. I said to professor Dexter ‘it looks like an etching plate. Could I get permission to print from them?’ I thought that printing off a human brain would be the ultimate self-portrait of someone. I thought Dexter would say no, but he spoke to the hospital’s ethics committee and found that some patients had left their brains to science, as well as photography and other mediums. The committee thought it was perfectly ethical for me to print off a human brain tissue, but it had to be done in a very particular way. The professor was present throughout the whole process to make sure no damage was done to the brain samples.

The project was another way for the Brain Bank to publicise the work they did on Parkinson’s. It was also a celebration of the patients that had donated their bodies to science. It wasn’t like I was a Machiavellian artist going in and stealing a brain, it was all done totally transparently and with permission.

How challenging was it to work with such delicate material?
The brain slices had been preserved in formaldehyde, which meant they were quite supple. It was a bit like potato printing, I put the brain slices directly onto a zinc etching plate. I had no idea whether I was going to get any marks. We shook an aqua tint around the brain slice to create a dark background colour. The chemicals from the formaldehyde or the fact that there is fat in the brain made a resist, so that when we put it in the etching acid it had left enough marks for the etching to work. We got these extraordinarily beautiful etched marks that weren't interfered with. I was only allowed the brain specimens for two days but in those two days we got 22 prints, which were all completely magical and unexpected.

How did you work with the museum to present the work?

It can be a real problem for an artist when another person is showing your work. The context might be very important to you, but it is not necessarily important to the curator. However, the curator of the Fitzwilliam’s show Realisation was very keen to understand the process and the reason behind making the prints because it fitted into his curatorial themes for the show and with Jane Dixon’s work.

The etching plates were also in the show. They are not only very beautiful but they were also the objects that had the touch of the human brain on them so they carry a special meaning. I think the museum did everything it could to bring the full meaning out of the work. It was a very well thought out show. Dixon’s work looked like natural history drawings, but they came from her imagination, and my work showed these extraordinary brain images that look like they come out of space, but actually have got a  touch of reality about them.