Visiting the Wellcome Collection’s special exhibitions can often seem like a delirious concoction of the hospital ward and fairground. Entering through the ‘Medicine Man’ exhibition, with its dancing illuminated skeletons, one approaches ‘States of Mind: Tracing the edges of consciousness’ as if one is being checked in to a rather didactic teaching hospital designed by Douglas Adams with its specialist departments – the ‘Science and Soul’ ward, the ‘Sleep and Awake’ ward, the ‘Language and Memory’ ward and the ‘Being and Not Being’ ward.
Some of the displays deliberately evoke the architecture of the hospital. The main commission in the series by Imogen Stidworthy, ‘The Whisper Heard’, is shown in a space with long, white, enveloping hospital curtains with monitors mounted on surgical trolleys and the echoing, spooky sound of the artist’s child’s voice. In fact the child, in this commission by Matt’s Gallery, is attempting to read from a chapter in Jules Verne’s novel ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ (1864), only partially understanding the words. Tony, an adult recovering from a stoke that has caused aphasia and has affected the language centres in the brain, tries to do the same, entirely understanding but not able to express the words. We are plunged fully into the hospital ward in Aya Ben Ron’s disturbing ‘Shift’ in which we see lengthy moments of interaction with ‘clinically unaware’ patients. The incredible staff attempt to get through to the patients, in one case using pet animals to lick the hands of the patients, also known as ‘persistently vegetative’.
Another artist in the exhibition, Louise K. Wilson has herself seen the interior of many clinical environments – she spent a number of years offering herself as a subject in medical tests and documenting this as an artwork. In ‘Timeline’, a process work made with psychologist Professor Madeline Eacott, she is collecting early memories and the dates at which they are remembered on postcards left by visitors to the exhibition. These will go into a developing sound work ‘Memoriagraph’. She is not the only ‘memory collector’ in the exhibition. AR Hopwood’s ‘False Memory Archive’, collected these false memories from many volunteers whose brains either have filled the gaps using information and experience of the world or who are simply deceived by suggestive images. In ‘Crudely Erased Adults (Lost in the Mall)’ Hopwood shows reworked red security camera images from Westfield of children much too young to be alone, wandering in the mall. An apparent letter to the security company requesting the images pinned to the wall suggests Hopwood may be manipulating our memories too.
The dramatic mannequin by Goshka Macuga ‘Sommambulist’, used by the Wellcome Trust as a motif and as marketing visual for the exhibition is clearly effective. Like the Collection’s previous art and science exhibitions which ask big questions about humanity, such as ‘The Institute of Sexology’, they are going for the big numbers and the exhibition, late in its run, was clearly crowded by a young and enthusiastic public. But like that show, I kept feeling I was missing something. Unlike other museums, the Wellcome Collection is clearly not lukewarm to the idea of completely integrating contemporary artists into its displays. Somehow (the Stidworthy excluded, perhaps) it feels that the artists are not allowed to make the viewer feel uneasy or challenged. This is enhanced by the annoying way in which the contemporary art is somehow mix-decked into the historical collection and becomes indistinguishable from it, as if there is a seamless transition. In other historical exhibitions where this strategy is used, the contemporary art challenges the display. Here it simply seems to join the drumbeat. Every time I have visited one of these exhibitions I keep asking – which of these is the art? Perhaps, to the crowds wandering through the art-science hospital wards, it doesn’t matter. I want art to challenge, not complement the science. Maybe that’s the next step in this series of exhibitions that seek to ask big questions.