Polka-dotted blobs and spiderweb caves have recently taken over the Southbank Centre in London. Showing at the Hayward Gallery, ‘Walking in My Mind’ aims to immerse the visitor in the mental visions of other people – in this case, the unusual visions of ten contemporary artists. Each artist has created a room-sized installation that turns on its head the notion of mental space as something private and personal. With its twisting paths and glimpses of surreal visions or random debris, the exhibition also encourages visitors to think about the relationship between creativity and the mind. Are artists fundamentally different, do they experience the world in unique ways – and if so, how can we step inside to see what they are seeing?
In the early 20th century, scientists made several significant breakthroughs in the study of the brain. Harvey William Cushing was the first to electrically stimulate the cortex of the brain. In 1906, Sir Charles Sherrington published ‘The Integrative Action of the Nervous System’. Friedrich Goltz and other physiologists observed that dogs could be made to simulate emotions. Far from a personal, intangible thing, the ‘mind’ now seemed to resemble a machine that could be predicted and controlled.
Taking their cue from science, 20th-century artists took up this idea of the mind as machine. The artwork of Fritz Kahn is a classic example, showing the brain as a factory where thoughts are churned out like products on an assembly line. This machine aesthetic also found its way into early 20th-century design.
Today, there seems to be room for both interpretations. The brain can be enigmatic, but also understood. Mental visions can be personal, but also shared. Contemporary art can work in tandem with research into neurology and the brain. With all the scientific tools available, the artists’ ongoing invitation to ‘walk into my mind’ may become an increasingly literal possibility – raising even more questions about the nature of self and of art.
See more of Fritz Kahn’s work online at the British Library.