Exhibition Review

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MIND OVER MATTER
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Memory, Forgetting, Brain Donation and the Search for Cures for Dementia.

Dr Bronwyn and Ania Dabrowska.

12-23 October 2011,
Shoreditch Town Hall



Review by Pamela Lee
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24/10/11

‘Mind Over Matter’ is science-art collaboration about dementia and the contribution of brain donors. The exhibition focuses on the unique cadre of twelve brain donors, and the difference that they’re donation will make in finding a cure for this devastating disease.
In the world of art and design there has been a growing trend of mixing creative genres and now this is transcending further to blur the lines between Science and art. I think it is exciting that these fields are discovering how to complement and help each other to reach broader audiences. So, having read briefly about the exhibition I was already interested, but I had no idea what an outstanding and moving piece of work this collaboration would be.

Description
The exhibition was housed in the basement space below Shoreditch Town Hall. Entering through a small door you came upon a wide corridor and were greeted - often by Ania Dabrowska herself. Continuing down the corridor, with the introductory information in hand, you were first introduced by way of portrait, biography and interview to each of the donors in the project. After the first corridor there were a series of narrower corridors, many interlinked with adjacent rooms varying in size and the viewer was free to wander through these, discovering each and its contents as they pleased. The rooms and corridors held a collection of photographs, film, drawings, text and sound and were joined by a variety of steps, ledges and doorways creating huge diversity through out the exhibition.

Analysis
The introductory information informs the viewer that Dementia means literally ‘without mind’ and that the disease can lead to a total disorientation of time, in place and in person. This feeling of disorientation was gradually and astutely introduced through the exhibition. At first I felt a very humanising effect as I met each of the donors whereas later I was reminded of the very sterile, de-humanising process of harvesting the brain. But walking away from this I was re-introduced to glimpses of the donors already met. I began to recognise snippets of their interviews coming across the speakers, walk past their portraits in the corridor, and see photographs and videos of weddings and birthdays – of memories, but all in disarray. There is no sequence in time and no differentiation between images and voices and whom they belong to. It is not noticeable immediately but soon I became engulfed in the atmosphere of the underground maze and started to get a sense of the uneasy disorientation of time place and people.
The space itself is built like a labyrinth. There are pipes and wires leading along the ceilings of the corridors, weaving in and out of the rooms. No specific ground layout is immediately visible, only a series of chambers off narrow corridors leading in and out of each other. This was the perfect physical metaphor for the anatomy of the brain.
The most effective use of the space was simply the freedom for the viewer to discover it for themselves, climbing over walls into small chasms, coming up against locked doors and finding disused rooms with mysterious objects covered in dust sheets. This was an incredibly powerful analogy for how science has opened so many doors towards curing this disease but how so many still remains closed and so much unknown. It also touched on the stigma surrounding retaining bodily parts for medical research, how information has been kept private and secret and how this project hopes to open discourse on the subject and demystify it.

For me, one of the greatest achievements from the use of space, choice and presentation of work and information was how it successfully formed a representative of memory itself. Sound, images, movement all intrinsically linked, weaving in and out of each other, connecting and disconnecting, hazy and clear. By the time I neared the end of the exhibition I found myself thinking intently about memory and questioning it. What was it, How does it take up space in the brain and where does it go when we die and are memories represented differently in each brain?
The exhibition informed and taught me about dementia and brain dissection but it also left me questioning and so understanding the need for science to know more and thus cadre of the sacrifice the donors make and importance for this research to continue.

Reflection
This is a truly remarkable exhibition. It is groundbreaking in both its subject and its superb execution of meeting science with art. The use of space to create an entire experience leaves the viewer feeling a deeper understanding of the impacts of dementia and the importance of finding a cure. It deals tactfully and insightfully with a very delicate subject both for the public and the families of the donor involved. Each of the donors’ opinions, views and personalities are very much felt.
One of the most moving lines for me was “my husband is alive in here”, there is a unifying idea that the only thing that matters in the end is what we remember, (what are we without memory?). These people are donating their brains because they understand this significance and in return the exhibition is remembering them. For me, this final realisation was the finishing detail to a remarkable exhibition.

After thoughts
For me the exhibition became an entire experience on account of the excellent connection between exhibition space and the material exhibited. From speaking to Anya the artist and curator, I learnt that she had known about the space prior to the exhibition and had envisaged it for the project from the beginning. I do not see how a better space could have been found. The diversity that the exhibition will now face is touring to different locations. It will be a difficult process to try and re-create the experience of the Shoreditch Town Hall. I think that this initial presentation of the exhibition will be viewed as the original milestone, and from here sections of the exhibition will be shown in various settings. I am a great believer in the power of portraiture and I think that even the portraits and interviews could make a very moving and enlightening show. The message of the exhibition is so powerful that it is important for a greater audience to have the opportunity to view, if even a part of it. I believe that this exhibition is an example to be followed and will be leader in many more collaborations between art and science.

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