The brains of the operation: Daksha Patel

Phoebe Hurst

We meet the Salford-based artist whose latest commission takes centre stage in MOSI’s Brains: The Mind as Matter exhibition.

There was a time when we relied almost entirely on imagination to uncover what lurks beneath the human skin. Ancient Mayans were convinced that evil spirits could be sweated out in steam baths  and Medieval doctors thought our skin encased four types of “humour,” forever in danger of becoming unbalanced. Advances in medical science debunked such theories and today, transmitting a high definition image from beneath the skin can seem as instantaneous as flicking on a TV. MRI scans expose the brain’s every contour, endoscopic cameras give us an all too intimate glimpse of our intestines and Ultrasounds project detailed images of unborn babies. But is there such a thing as too much transparency? At what point do we need to put the lid back on our inner workings? Daksha Patel’s work looks at the ramifications of such medical technology and questions our fascination with seeing below the skin. “Being able to see inside the human body is still quite a powerful idea,” she says. “But does this make our bodies easier to understand or more complicated?”

“Fat drawing” makes a good case for “more complicated.” Patel’s drawing, which forms part of MOSI’s latest exhibition, Brains: The Mind as Matter shows a life-sized image of the human brain, painted with goose fat and fitted to the proportions of a Renaissance portrait. Patel chose the unconventional painting material because of its transparent properties. “It’s very unstable,” she explains. “It changes from solid to liquid quite quickly and it bleeds.” The piece has already begun to change since being unveiled at the MOSI exhibition last month and a halo of translucency seeps from the edge of the image. “Seeing high magnifications of tiny cells can lead us to see our bodies as completely controllable,” she says. “By working with materials that change, I’m highlighting that ultimately, the body will always be difficult to control.”

Does seeing below the skin make our bodies harder to understand?

But Patel isn’t advocating that we do away with microscopes and scanners. The artist had been experimenting with the idea of seeing the human body through a scientific lens before being commissioned by MOSI to create “Fat drawing.” The piece features alongside work by eleven other contemporary artists as one of the only Manchester-based artworks in the exhibition, originally staged at London’s Wellcome Gallery. Brains also affirms its new Manchester identity with Wired: Brains at Night, staged in October as part of Manchester Weekender. The afterhours event uses MOSI’s multiple screen wall to showcase Denis Jones and Wasp Video’s sound and light experience which takes inspiration from imagery of the brain.

Patel’s own experience of the brain is informed by its status as a physical object. Describing the process behind her etching of a brain cell, Patel says she aimed to highlight the “materiality” of the brain. “Printmaking is all about using your hands and engaging with the materials: the image is etched on the metal plate, you push the ink into the grooves and you rub the surface,” she continues. “I wanted to take this disembodied digital image and turn it back into a material presence.” This “material presence” glimmers through the etching’s embossed edges and smeared traces of ink: the spindly brain cell is part of a bigger, undeniably physical object.

For her next project, Patel continues her exploration of the brain’s materiality. “Currently I’m working with EEG sensors that pick up data from your brain,” says Patel. “I’m going to project the signals from the biosensors onto a large easel, which I will then draw on.” Patel plans to take the project to the Cornerhouse later on this year and will ask gallery-goers to wear the sensors, streaming their own brain signals through the gallery space. Part scientific experiment and part art installation, the project flits between a purely medical experience of the body and an artistic one. It’s a complexly hybrid space but one Patel has become accustomed to exploring.

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