“It’s an interesting sort of specialisation,” says Aldworth, and she always tells her students “to focus on what they are interested in… take the risk and time it takes to become an artist.” She believes it is essential to not be too respectful of either field; to question what needs to be questioned.
“Keep your questions big.” – Aldworth
Elisabeth, Susan Aldworth, installation of 9 monotypes with chine-collé, 2.5x2m, shown at National Portrait Gallery, London 2013. Image courtesy of NPG.
Aldworth, as a dynamic artist interested in science, is highly intrigued by the workings of the human mind. She constantly aims to explore topics such as sleep, consciousness, and our sense of self.
But what is it about the brain that fascinates Aldworth so much?
“It is very simple really. The brain is just a piece of flesh, but how on earth does consciousness emanate from it? How does it turn matter into imagination? How does my sense of self and personality emerge from this physical organ of the body?” says Aldworth. “I think my love of the brain has a lot do with my interest in philosophy and the fact that neuroscience can look into this piece of flesh and start to offer answers to big philosophical questions,” she continues.
According to Aldworth, brain scans are a new material for artists to work with – prior to them the only way to see a brain was via dissection. She often uses them in her art. “Brain scans are beautiful – they look like trees! And although these scans are just anatomical, they seem to signpost interiority, the person within, and this has a sort of potency in contemporary culture,” says Aldworth.
Her award-winning exhibition, ‘The Dark Self’ (2017), was inspired by research on sleep during her three-year residency at the University of York. In ‘The Dark Self’, Aldworth explores the various aspects of sleep and its impact on the human condition. “Sleep is something unknown and invisible, and also individual: it’s my sleep and your sleep. As a visual artist, it was difficult to work with these [characteristics].”
“And although these scans are just anatomical, they seem to signpost interiority, the person within, and this has a sort of potency in contemporary culture.”
Aldworth worked with a neuroscientist and a sleep disorder clinic to explore the many narratives of sleep and sleep disorders. Using the pillow as the central motif for her exhibition in a medieval church, Aldworth asked four hundred people to embroider their sleep experiences and dreams onto pillowcases.
“The embroidered pillowcases were hung from the ceiling of the church like a silent congregation; I wanted people to think about the fact that everyone has to sleep,” Aldworth said.
With this exhibition, Aldworth aimed to diminish the notion that sleep is “nothing time” and that we don’t achieve much when we sleep. “We spend a third of our lives asleep and the science of sleep has become very important in modern medicine. Scientists have shown that our brains are as active when we sleep as when we are awake. But no-one can give an explanation of why we sleep,” she explains.
The pillow is the centre-piece in this exhibition, as a visual metaphor for sleeping, and it is a recurring motif as “the only evidence of sleep is the indent of the head on the pillow,” says Aldworth. Sculptures made from porcelain present the indentation of a sleeper’s head, a hard unyielding material that contrasts with the soft and giving quality of a pillow. “The sleeper is absent; the indentation is a negative space; and the work begins a dialogue about the unconscious state of deep sleep.”
Aldworth is also one of the artists in residency on the multidisciplinary project, CANDO (Controlling Abnormal Network Dynamics using Optogenetics). She and science artist Andrew Carnie have collaborated with the CANDO scientists in its public engagement project, ‘Illuminating the Self’.