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Painting by MRI
THE boundaries of portraiture are pushed back as art and science unite in the interactive exhibition Me Myself And MRI at the National Science Learning Centre in York.
Inspiration for this multi-media show was twofold.
First came Mark Quinn’s controversial conceptual portrait of genetic scientist Sir John Sulston, in the form of Sir John’s DNA image from his sperm, in a portraiture exhibition at York Art Gallery, and then York artist Damian Murphy decided to undergo a brain scan as part of a research project.
“So that got us thinking about forms of portraiture, integrating Magnetic Resonance Imaging data, as we wanted to create a very modern exhibition that would develop the next stage of portraiture,” says project manager Kirsty Halliday. “But if you look at someone’s brain, even though it is their powerhouse, what does it tell you about a person?”
The answer was not enough on its own, and so a year-long project was hatched by the York arts partnership Geodesic Arts, working in collaboration with Archbishop Holgate’s School and York Neuroimaging Centre, with funding from the Wellcome Trust and Arts Council England.
The project would incorporate not only MRI imaging but also video, audio and photography under the auspices of technical producer Mark Hildred.
“By bringing these elements together with interactive technology, you could create a rounded portrait of an individual,” says Kirsty, who was joined in the project by lead artist Damian Murphy, video artist John Oxley, photographer Kippa Matthews and art historian Griselda Goldsborough..
“So that was the start of the artistic side of the project and then we realised that there was scope for educational work, so since December 2007 we’ve been working with science pupils from Archbishop Holgate’s, starting at Year 8,” says Kirsty.
“It was a way of tapping into science students at 12 or 13 when it’s usually easier to tap into arts students.”
The pupils selected six “very different people who make up society” as the subjects for the exhibition: Calendar presenter and television journalist Christine Talbot, Bradford playwright Tajinder Singh Hayer; York kick-boxing champion Tony Dias, who runs a martial arts centre in Malton; health care assistant (or nurse, if you prefer) Seonaid Sutton; school chaplain Richard Nihill and science teacher Dean Riley.
Each sat for photographic portraits and underwent an MRI brain scan and participated in video and audio interviews, for which the nine questions were set by the pupils.
“We had discussions with them about what made people individual and they them came up with the questions to express that individuality,” says Kirsty.
Most striking of those questions was: Describe your life so far, eg stressful, exciting, peaceful, easy.
The data and footage has been transformed into a series of digital portraits assembled in a circle, taking portraiture beneath the skin and beyond the eyes in MRI scans that highlight features unique to each individual.
Recordings of the MRI scanning process provide a constant, rhythmic electronic soundtrack to emphasise the sense of a vision of the future in an age where identity can be defined through images of the iris as well as fingerprints.
“This exhibition raises the question of what is a 21st century portrait, because there are so many ways of creating a portrait now,” says John Oxley.
Tajinder Singh Hayer was a willing participant, even if he is more used to handing over his plays for performance than being the subject of attention himself. “I am inherently uncomfortable all the time, so this can’t make it much worse,” he says. “Humans are intrinsically interesting and while I think it’s impossible for one portrait to say everything, here I have the chance to portray myself in what I say, or how I look, or what answers I give, but there are also things that I can’t control, like the images from the MRI scan.
“If the eyes are the windows to the soul, they’re even more so in these images.”
• Me Myself & MRI runs at the National Science Learning Centre, University of York, until March 26, open Monday to Friday, 9am to 4pm; Impressions Gallery, Bradford, April 8 to 9, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, 11am to 6pm, Thursday, 11am to 8pm, Saturday and Sunday, 12 noon to 5pm; York Hospital exhibition space, near the WRVS café, May 9 to 31, 9am to 5pm daily.