• Cultural Practices

'The Brain. In Art & Science': Curating an Interdisciplinary Exhibition

Henriette Pleiger

Currently on view at the Bundeskunsthalle (Bonn, Germany) until 26 June 2022.

https://www.bundeskunsthalle.de/en/gehirn.html


The Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, Germany, is a federally funded venue for temporary exhibitions, in the absence of a permanent collection. Its diverse programmes are comprised of exhibitions on art and art history, but also on relevant themes from the realms of cultural history, ethnography, archaeology, and the natural sciences. Throughout the institution’s history since 1992, several of its exhibitions have combined these realms of knowledge production by taking on an interdisciplinary approach. In these exhibitions, positions from art, cultural history and the natural sciences were incorporated into the thematic enquiry, exhibition narrative and diverse object choice. The latest example of this kind of exhibition can be seen in the venue’s current show, The Brain. In Art & Science.


The exhibition was developed by Johanna Adam and me, as the two institutional curators of the Bundeskunsthalle, who were especially interested in artistic, philosophical and historical takes on the topic, in collaboration with our co-curator John-Dylan Haynes, a renowned brain researcher from the Charité University Hospital, Berlin, who represented the scientific aspects of our theme. The development process of the exhibition began in 2018 and intensified considerably from 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we worked in countless online meetings between Bonn and Berlin to negotiate a joint curatorial language which would result in a concise exhibition concept. Bencard et al. called this interdisciplinary process ‘curating experimental entanglements’ (Bencard et al. 2019, 133), referring to the development of the permanent exhibition Mind the Gut at the Medical Museion in Copenhagen, for which they invited both artists and biomedical scientists to join their curatorial team. Similarly, we sought to encircle our own topic – the human brain– from a multitude of perspectives and disciplines to fully encapsulate the complexity of the subject.


The exhibition

One of the main reasons why we chose the human brain as a topic for our exhibition was that it still seemed to us like an enigma or uncharted territory which offers space for fictions and fantasies as well as for bold scientific theories. In terms of the history of science, the human brain became the focus of interest relatively late but is now all the more in the spotlight of research. What is the brain: control centre, super-computer, or home of the self? Brain research is constantly delivering new insights, but it also continues to face many unresolved questions. As such, the human brain inspires a wealth of speculation and hypotheses – not only among scientists but also for philosophers, artists, and researchers from many other disciplines.


Within a space of around 1,500 square meters, the exhibition is comprised of over 300 objects and artworks from around 100 lenders. In addition to the theories and factual findings of brain research and neurology, disciplines such as philosophy, religion, the history of medicine, psychology, as well as art, were all supposed to have their say in the exhibition. Our attempt to implement interdisciplinary dialogue constitutes a deliberate exhibition experiment (compare with Macdonald and Basu 2007) which aims to approach our subject from different directions, while at the same time taking the visitor on a comprehensible journey through the cultural history and scientific exploration of the human brain. Contemporary as well as historical artworks were chosen to underscore and complement both theoretical and practical questions of brain research as an alternative ‘way of knowing’ (Bjerregaard 2020, 4) and occasionally also to enable their immediate experience. 'Artists are an obvious source of expertise in generating aesthetics and sensory phenomena that might facilitate visitors in a more philosophical encounter with the world' (Bencard et al. 2019, 136).


The exhibition is structured into five sections, each devoted to a seemingly simple question that visitors might ask themselves quite naturally. These questions are intended to work as an entry point for a deeper and more complex exploration of the topic. All five sections include objects from art, cultural history, and science, which are not marked or separated by their form of display. In addition to the texts in each of the five rooms, a glossary of scientific, philosophical, and historical terms runs throughout the exhibition in the form of thirty ‘spotlights of knowledge’. This textual sublevel corresponds with the presented scientific, cultural-historical and artistic notions about the brain and its modes of functioning.


(1) The first question simply reads, ‘What is in my head?’ This section investigates the organ that is the human brain, its rather hermetic anatomy, and its comparatively slow discovery throughout the history of medicine, starting with archaeological findings from as early as the Mesolithic period and ancient Egypt. An example from scientific history is Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s anatomical drawings of brain cells and structures from the early 20th century.


Exhibition view of the first section, ‘What is in my head?’ Photo: David Ertl, 2022 © Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland GmbH.


(2) The second question reads, ‘How do I envision the processes of the brain?’ This next section asks about the cognitive functions and active processes within the brain. It presents significant technical inventions in brain research, such as the MRI, which enabled the study of the active brain. On a more speculative note, analogies and metaphors for the workings within our brains – such as the thinking process – invite a wealth of artistic interpretations.


Exhibition view of the second section, ‘How do I envision the processes of the brain?’ Photo: P. P. Weiler, 2022 © Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland GmbH.


(3) Shifting into the realm of philosophy, the third question reads, ‘Are my body and I the same thing?’ The dualistic idea of our soul as a separate entity that is detached from the body is still prevalent, especially in our concepts of understanding death. Modern brain research prefers to speak of ‘consciousness’ instead of ‘soul’ or ‘mind’ and considers mental processes as inseparable from physical ones. This room explores different stages of consciousness such as anaesthesia, sleep and dream, but also psychiatric conditions in which seemingly dissociative events of the body and mind might occur. This section also explores the nature of our understanding of the self and how we form our personalities.


Exhibition view of the third section, ‘Are my body and I the same thing?' Photo: David Ertl, 2022 © Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland GmbH.


(4) The interplay between body and mind is evident in the function of our senses. The fourth question therefore reads, ‘What do I make of the world?’ This section asks how the world enters our heads and how reliable our perception and memory are. The room is largely devoted to our understanding of the senses including anatomical models as well as artistic positions and experiments.


Exhibition view of the fourth section, ‘What do I make of the world?’ Photo: David Ertl, 2022 © Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland GmbH.


(5) Finally, the fifth question reads, ‘Should I optimise my brain?’ Today, neurological implants help to alleviate symptoms for a variety of illnesses, including Parkinson’s disease. But what will humans of the future look like? Will we become cyborgs one day? Artistic visions in response to this question are often inspired by the latest research. Much of it remains pure fantasy or science fiction, but it stimulates interesting thoughts. For the question of what humanity might become is preceded by a more fundamental and ethical consideration: ‘What is it that makes us – and our brains – human’?


Exhibition view of the fifth section, ‘Should I optimise my brain?’ Photo: P. P. Weiler, 2022 © Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland GmbH.


An inclusive guidance system with interactive stations takes visitors through the exhibition, which are aesthetically reminiscent of neuronal pathways. In addition, an accompanying virtual exhibition (www.gehirn.art) was developed parallel to the analogue exhibition in the Bundeskunsthalle. The two exhibitions are linked through a number of augmented reality experiences that are accessible through QR-codes within the analogue exhibition. The exhibition is accompanied by a substantial publication (Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland 2022).


Curatorial negotiations and object environments

When we started the interdisciplinary process of developing the exhibition concept, we first had to find a way to harmonise our different ways of working. We had to explore together what this cooperation between two exhibition curators and a brain researcher could look like and how we could reach an agreement on framing the topic. In fact, this process of rapprochement about the question of how each of the three curators understood the exhibition concept and represented the final exhibition lasted until the exhibition’s opening ceremony on 27 January 2022.


Sometimes it felt as if we were three different vertebrates sitting around a table: a bird, a fish and a mammal. Although sharing similar backbones, we – like the objects we suggested respectively – were favouring three very different environments: air, water and land. I would like to take this – of course grossly simplistic – analogy a little further. Artworks require airy environments like birds spreading their wings while unfolding their ‘aura’. Historical objects and documents are perhaps in need of a more liquid environment which enables them to dive deep and embed themselves into their historical contexts. Scientific objects perhaps ask for a more solid ground to support their factual appearances. Therefore, what we had to do is nothing less than create an airy waterland enabling us, as well as the chosen stories and objects, to communicate at eye level. Fortunately, we all showed great interest in learning about the other’s perspectives and were thus at least momentarily trying to become egg-laying semi-aquatic mammals like platypuses, while taking a glimpse into each other’s living environments. This analogy certainly has its flaws as our disciplinary areas were, in fact, not as separated as might seem suggested. And at least in terms of curiosity we had to be mixed creatures from the start – willing to create a joined territory for all of us to be able to breathe and move without ‘neutralizing or instrumentalizing’ (Bencard et al. 2019, 137) artworks or science objects respectively. A clear and consensual exhibition narrative – the five exhibition sections described above – helped us considerably to achieve these common grounds. We agreed on five ‘playgrounds’, in which each of us could make ‘species-appropriate’ suggestions regarding the stories and objects we wanted to include.


Conclusion

Ralf Stiftel (Westfälischer Anzeiger, 29 January 2022) wrote in his exhibition review shortly after the opening about ‘the strengths of this interdisciplinary exhibition: facts and fantasies engage in a fruitful exchange. The exhibition in Bonn does not solve the enigma of this complex organ. But it offers a wealth of stories, food for thought and joyful enlightenment.’ However, another review by Jens Dirksen (Westfalenpost, 2 February 2022) warned ‘natural science fans’ that art and cultural history had been given too strong a voice in the mix. The artistic perspective admittedly has the strongest voice in this ‘exhibition experiment’, but this perhaps made it possible for the exhibition to become more than a ‘mere presentation of concluded research results’, transcending into an ‘active venue for analysis itself’ (Hansen et al. 2019, 3).

 

Henriette Pleiger is an exhibition curator and manager at the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (www.bundeskunsthalle.de) in Bonn, Germany, where she has co-curated and organized several large temporary exhibitions often combining art, cultural history and science since 2002.


She is currently studying for a PhD in Museum Practice at the Institute for Cultural Practices at the University of Manchester. Her PhD research project is titled 'Interdisciplinary Exhibitions and the Production of Knowledge'.


University Email: henriette.pleiger@postgrad.manchester.ac.uk

Work Email: pleiger@bundeskunsthalle.de

Twitter: @JettePleiger

 
References

Bencard, A., Whiteley, L. and Thon, C. H. (2019). Curating experimental entanglements, in: Hansen, M. V., Henningsen, A. F. and Gregersen, A. (eds.). Curatorial Challenges: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Contemporary Curating, London/New York: Routlegde, pp. 133-146.


Bjerregaard, P. (2020). Introduction, in: Bjerregaard, P. (ed.). Exhibitions as Research: Experimental Methods in Museums, London/New York: Routlegde, pp. 1-16.


Hansen, M. V., Henningsen, A. F. and Gregersen, A. (2019). Introduction, in: Hansen, M. V., Henningsen, A. F. and Gregersen, A. (eds.). Curatorial Challenges: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Contemporary Curating, London/New York: Routlegde, pp. 1-5.


Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (ed.) (2022). Das Gehirn. In Kunst & Wissenschaft (The Brain. In Art & Science), München: Hirmer (https://www.hirmerverlag.de/de/titel-1-1/das_gehirn-2307/).


Macdonald, S. and Basu, P. (eds.) (2007). Exhibition Experiments. Malden MA, Oxford, Carlton: Blackwell.