Can Neurological Disease Spark Creativity?

Put together by a new group of graduates who call themselves the AXNS Collective, Affecting Perception: Art & Neuroscience is an exhibition exploring neurological disease and its relationship with creativity.

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Review: Affecting Perception: Art & Neuroscience

Perception is Reality

Jon Sarkin, The House We Live In, 2012, permanent marker on paper, © The Artist

Jon Sarkin, The House We Live In, 2012, permanent marker on paper, © The Artist

BackPropagationC (1)

Nicholas Wade, Back Propagation, 2012, digital print, © The Artist

Adams Igneous Rock C

Jon Adams, 228, 2012, digital manipulated photograph, © The Artist

The O3 Gallery occupies a compact corner of Oxford’s picturesque Castle Quarter. On a quiet Friday evening, not quite knowing what to expect, I approach the entrance to the private viewing of Affecting Perception: Art & Neuroscience to be greeted with warmth, wine and the hum of well-informed chatter. A welcome contrast to the mute chill of winter outside, still hanging on as it always does.

Put together by a new group of graduates who call themselves the AXNS Collective, this exhibition is an exploration of neurological disease and its relationship with creativity. Visual perception takes a leading role, both in the sense that the artwork portrays the altered view of the artists and also that the audience must use its own vision to perceive what it sees. I discover that Affecting Perception: Art & Neuroscience is no meaningless display of artists’ work for sale. More an invitation into the disorientating world of neurological disease.

In a short time I am met with a disconcerting amount of neurological conditions, most of which I am familiar with, some adding to my somewhat limited scientific knowledge. These afflictions, acquired due to organic growths or physical developments, present themselves as sketches, paintings, illustrations, optical illusions, sounds and films, displayed for all to see as an insight into the featured artists’ lives. I am suddenly unsure if I should be observing the personal and often painful depictions in front of me, but find myself unable to turn away.

Often a neurological condition is associated with a loss of ability, yet what makes Affecting Perception so refreshing is that it embraces the success and occasional improvement of creative abilities in most of its subjects. Although the distress and impairment of each condition is maintained through scattered descriptions, it is remarkable that these artists are able to provide a keyhole to the way they view the world. Autism causes everyday objects and landscapes to become intricately systematic; migraines split the visual world into a mosaic; acquired savant syndrome translates scenes into abstract mathematics…

The rapid, cathartic paintings of Cecil Riley that demonstrate the haunting visions caused by his Charles Bonnet syndrome (a condition that causes complex hallucinations) have a particular resonance in me. He believes he can train himself not to see these hallucinations if he paints them. An unfamiliar object floats ominously in the centre of a canvas while a kaleidoscope of eyes in another of his haunting delusions watches you, but it is hard to believe that due to large patches of blindness he could only paint if he was looking side-on at his work.

The AXNS Collective has clearly put a lot of work in to giving access to academic learning, especially through the numerous free workshops that are being held during the course of the exhibition. I look forward to many more educational, inspirational projects from them.

On my reflective journey home I feel grateful that my creative mind remains free from the pain of the many conditions I have experienced through this exhibition, but can’t help wondering whether my ‘healthy’ brain is in fact hiding the beauty and ephemerality of the visual world from me. Affecting Perception has certainly inspired and impressed me, yet I find myself questioning whether these seemingly ‘successful’ artists would deem themselves so given their circumstances and the experiences they have endured to produce their masterpieces.

See what you think. Affecting Perception: Art & Neuroscience is free to view at the O3 Gallery in Oxford from 2nd – 31st March.