books, brains, paths

Last weekend I made a fleeting visit to London for a reunion and I managed to catch a couple of exhibitions whilst I was there. Unfortunately, a horrendous hangover fogged my visit to the British Library's Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands (it was the day after the reunion), and I couldn't get away from the impression that the books were pinned like butterflies in the glass cabinets. Writing Britain is a rich and imaginative exhibition that attempts to unpick the relationship between landscape, writers and their writing. I particularly enjoyed hearing Sara Maitland and Robert Macfarlane talk in the exhibition's videos. This quote from Macfarlane has been on my mind all week:
Almost every significant rock or landmark has language associated with it, has stories associated with it. We live in a densely historically storiated landscape. How do you find new ways of seeing those, joining those stories up? Making songlines as it were, joining place to place, story to story, and image to image.
But although I could find much to look at (through the fog), I felt at a loss in a room dedicated to words and stories in which I couldn't turn a single page.

Pre-hangover, I found the Wellcome Collection's exhibition Brains: The Mind as Matter fascinating. The exhibition looks at the brain as a physical object and how it's been used and abused, exhibited and examined throughout history.

I was drawn to slices of stained brain tissue that looked like botanical specimens, a jar of tumours wrapped in veins and rags, a jaundiced wax head with the scalp folded down over one eye, a nineteenth century Atlas of Head Sections, and a nidus — Latin for nest — a tangle of blood vessels in the heart of a glass-etched brain.

There was a stark contrast between the luminous neural pathways in the digital images on display and the dull grey objects with curdled folds, pickled in jars. Despite centuries of inventive and sometimes horrific attempts to unlock its secrets, Marcus Kwint points out in the exhibition's accompanying book that, 'The human brain remains a largely mysterious world, and its explorers, surveyors and cartographers have only begun to identify its main roads, rivers and regions'.

The reunion itself was a wonderful but peculiar experience. Peculiar because no one seemed to have changed at all and that felt a bit unsettling, as though ten years should have had more effect on us all. In the spaces between visits I walked without purpose by the river and along streets I didn't know and thought about the last ten years, and I returned with a nest of memories old and new, threaded through with images of barbecue smoke clouding drizzle and the press of people shrouded in damp union jacks (it was jubilee weekend). It was only when I got home that I realised I'd been so busy walking round in my head that I hadn't stopped to take a single photograph.

Brains: The Mind as Matter is on at the Wellcome Collection until 17th June.
Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands is on at the British Library until 25th of September.