Wellcome Collection: States of Mind Exhibition

The States of Mind exhibition, curated by Emily Sargent, explores the ideas of consciousness and awareness. The exhibition includes works by people who have previously explored consciousness and experimented with the concept of being aware of oneself. Its clear layout was easy to follow and each section was shown with clarity.

One of the first explorations shown in the exhibition is the idea of dualism and mind-body distinction. Based on descartes philosophy of the mind and the body being of completely different natures. It’s a theory which suggests that although they are different, the mind and body work together through use of the human brain. In the exhibition, this thesis is explored in a section named ‘Science & Soul’; Dualism is explained as being ‘two separate realms: that of objective, physical world and a separate internal world of private experience’. It was demonstrated clearly through William Blake’s “The soul hovering above the body reluctantly parting with life”- originally illustrated in the nineteenth century.


“The soul hovering above the body reluctantly parting with life” – William Blake

The next part of the exhibition explored ‘Sleep & Awake’- Something that interests me significantly. Sleep was explained as a state of ‘altered consciousness’. The exhibition stated how we are not actually aware of ourselves dreaming whilst we are asleep but we often realise once we are awake. Although our brains remain in an active trance, many areas in our brain actually increase in activity when we are asleep. It spoke about sleep disorders and how they effect the balance of the brains activity. In the exhibition there is reference to somnambulism or sleepwalking. This is through works by a London based artist, Goshka Macuga. It is a recreation of a main character from an early horror film, ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’.


‘Somnambulist’ – Goshka Macuga

In opposition to this, sleep paralysis is also touched upon in the space. It explains how the body is paralysed during sleep so that we do not act out our dreams, in some cases your mind is lifted from this and you are fully conscious and aware of your dreams. This can be a scary experience as has previously been compared to its origins in Japanese language as ‘kanashibari’ which means to tie with an iron rope. This typically conveys ideas of restriction and being trapped. Works such as ‘The Nightmare’ by Henry Fuseli clearly demonstrate this by illustrating the idea of sleep paralysis.


‘The Nightmare’ by Henry Fuseli

The next part of the exhibition took us to ‘Language and Memory’. Language is described as our realisation of individualism and being. It allows us to describe who we are and communicate with others, a key skill for growth and recognising our consciousness. This is called ‘Conscious Selfhood’. As well as sharing our experiences with others, we also talk to ourselves. This is a key concept in the separation of self consciousness. The theory that language and consciousness work together so intensely is also played with through works by Imogen Stidworthy. In this mixed media piece we are able to hear two voices; one of a young child who is in the early stages of learning language, and an older man who suffers from a post-stroke condition which effects language chambers in the brain.

Each was given a passage to read from a book and we hear the difference between the two participants. The child reads but does not necessarily understand where as the older gentleman reads, understands, but cannot relay the information, therefore he replaces the words with those that he can recall with similar meaning.

Th next thing to be discussed was memory, an interesting concept that was explored was whether the memory could be a reliable source of recalling things that have happened before. This was proved questionable with A.R Hopwood’s ‘False Memory Archive’. It explains how our brains automatically try to fill missing information in our conscious memory with things that happen through experience, making it feel realistic and therefore believable.

The final part of the exhibition raised awareness of ‘Being &Not Being’ where things such as clinically unaware patients, consciousness disorders and anaesthesia are discussed. It includes a film by artist Aya Ben Ron called ‘Shift’. this short film explores the consciousness and life of a clinically unaware patient, shown through many different perspectives. This sparked a form of ethical debate revolved around the care for these patients, as shown in Richard Tennant Cooper’s work, “An unconscious naked man lying on a table being attacked by little demons armed with surgical instruments; symbolising the effect of chloroform on the human body.”

V0017053 An unconscious naked man lying on a table being attacked by

“An unconscious naked man lying on a table being attacked by little demons armed with surgical instruments; symbolising the effect of chloroform on the human body.” By Richard Tennant Cooper

Overall, I learned so much in this exhibition and thought it was extremely interesting. I like the way that the curator has used historical explorations to support some of the modernised theories about consciousness. I find it fascinating how we can be conscious of ones being and acknowledge others through a ‘State of Mind’. I chose to visit this particular exhibition as i really enjoyed the lecture on Surveillance. I immediately thought of Benthem’s Panopticon prison where social change took place through managing criminal behaviour by making the inmates aware that they were being watched and therefore conscious of their behaviour. I found the exhibition very beneficial and would highly recommend it to anybody.



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