Photography and Neuroscience Seek Common Ground in the Realm of Old Masters

Maayan Amir
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Eran Gilat, Untitled (Life Science Series), 2011

Maayan Amir: In your practice as a scientist can you describe briefly your studies of neurological disorders. At what point you became interested in art and how did you specifically become interested in photography?

Eran Gilat: In my case, photography captured my interest long before I knew I was going to be a scientist. Photography was just a part of my life growing up. I did not consider it Art. At age 13, I received an analog reflex camera from my father. From that point on, into adulthood I obsessively took street photographs and portraits (both in Israel and NYC where I studied). But I never presented my work. I was deeply into research activity focusing on the mechanisms underlying epilepsy, and on its treatment studying its neurological consequences. In addition, I collaborated intensively with CWRU on certain electro-physiological aspects of cardiac arrhythmias.

About five years ago I felt that “art was struggling with science in my life” and decided I should surrender and take the risk of exposure of my photography. During a sabbatical, I joined the Tel-Aviv master class of two inspiring photographers, Eldad Rafaeli and Eyal Landesman. I wanted to familiarize myself with this world. I found this collaboration essential to my vision of photography. Following a project that focused on women and couples and their living space in Tel-Aviv (presented at the Artists House of Tel Aviv), I felt the urge to engage with “flesh.” artes fine arts magazine

Maayan: It seems that your visual vocabulary is very much based on elements which could be found in a scientific laboratory; that is, your interrogations involve looking at things through controlled conditions. How would you depict the differences and the similarities between the two modes of inquiry—the scientific and the artistic? On the surface they seem contradictory practices. In your work, how these two practices recharge one another with meaning?

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Untitled (Life Science Series), 2012

Eran: As to my present visual vocabulary, it is a mystery for me. I am sure that the vast exposure to biological specimens either in vivo or ex vivo has a major impact on my current photographic activity. In my medical research activity, like most neurobiologists, I dealt with various preparations, from marine species to mammalians. I can just report my visual experience and speculate. However, I can’t fully explain why I find rewards in it as an expressive tool, except as some kind of a pay-off at a subconscious level of my brain.

In many cases, working with “flesh” as a scientist or as a clinician is visually disturbing, specifically when you are in the initial stages of your career. You deal visually and morally with essential issues. In my photography, I realize that I am raising the neurological phenomenon of “animal reminder,” which is associated frequently with disgust and repulsion. It has a long history of being rooted in the visual arts.

As to the question of the interface of art and science, it is a tough one. In both cases, you play a solitary game, in your search for innovative and novel forms of inquiry. The major difference, I believe is methodology. In science, the rules are straight forward—reductionistic or objective. You are expected to take advantage of state-of-the-art technology, and with your expertise, convince the crowd, statistically, that no biased influences were involved. The impact of art on the observer is, in most cases, subjective; and enlightening, if it occurs, it is broad and open to discussion and interpretation. If I may quote artist, Moshe Gershuni, “One painting of Vermeer contains more information on humanity than half a century (or so) of scientific research.”

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Untitled (Life Science Series), 2012

When I began this project, I did not think Art. My first test photos were Lab oriented installations. Soon after that, I travelled to a lecture on Epilepsy in NY, and a friend told me that portfolio reviews were being conducted for the coming photography festival in New York City. On a very icy morning in February, 2011, I found my way there to show my portrait projects. I was told that the work was interesting but that I was not alone in this genre. The reviewer began to pull my “Life Science” photographs—still premature works, in my view—which I was embarrassed to show at the time. Initially, silence prevailed. I did not know if she was astounded or hated it. “Well it is new and unique. Are you aware at all that the atmosphere is like 17th century Flemish game piece paintings? I had to confess that tough I have seen certain paintings of this genre I wasn’t familiar with the theme. Others were also very supportive and lastly, the director of the coming festival, Sam Barzilay, praised the work and suggested that I immediately get back to work in my studio, so they could consider presenting my work in their next event. Sam still plays a pivotal role in promoting my activity, as the art director of the superb United Photo Industries Gallery, in NYC. Since then, I have been surprised and delighted with further awards and invitations.

Maayan: Your photography uses all the conventions of still life representation, while at the same time, you seem to be challenging traditional definitions of the ‘inanimate object.’ Given your scientific background, how do you address the interface of the organic—or once animate forms—with the mechanical or inanimate objects in your photographs? Is there a moralistic aspect to your work?

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Untitled (Life Science Series), 2011

Eran: I do not have a straight forward answer. This gets to the relationship between art and science. Until about the 17th century, there were no clear boundaries between the two practices. It was only after scientific studies became more demanding and reductionistic with its emphasis on “scientific proof” that artistic expression began to part ways. However, science remains a major inspiration for artists, due to the important moral and social impact art possesses.

But, when I started my still life photography work, I had to set aside my training as a clinical researcher, with my sterile lab environment, and think differently about the task. In the early stages, when I let my clinical rigor enter the photography process, I wasn’t very satisfied with the results. I could not envision a sterile lab when contemplating this project.

I confess to now obsessively collecting old tools (in many case old medical paraphernalia) and interesting items in flea markets, when I can find time. This probably drives me to improvise a scene that presents a certain amount of visual ambiguity for anyone expecting to see images of a conventional lab. This may lead to possible confusion in the viewer eyes, but, I believe, this makes the photograph compelling to examine.

Regarding your question of animate versus inanimate, art provides me with the option of complex imaginary transformations on the one hand and the possibility of exploring different notion of mystification and demystification, in ways that I couldn’t as a scientist. In science and medicine, definitions of ‘dead’ or alive’ matter, but as an artist, it is the emotional impact that I am looking to achieve. In reality, the specimens shown in my work are either from meat markets or natural history collections. So, as a photographer, I am honoring life in the same way that I would as a scientist.

Maayan: Your work echoes Vanitas paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries, emphasizing the certainty of death. Interestingly, while many of these paintings used the skull as a recurrent motive, you replace it with live organs and tissues…could you elaborate on this decision?

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Untitled (Life Science Series), 2011

Eran: I learned it en route, so to speak, from the professional reviewers of this project. I had seen Dutch game-piece paintings for earlier centuries before, but I don’t think that it consciously affected my work. I knew I want to deal with “real flesh,” namely organs ex vivo; I observed many hearts and brains during medical research, so I naturally gravitated toward that. Only later did I realize I wanted to expand my work to include whole animals. The use of skulls certainly makes the point about mortality, but unconsciously I suppose I wanted to use the more sophisticated neurological phenomenon of ‘animal reminder,’ with repulsion and attraction—or visual approach-avoidance—as a lead. This can be dramatically achieved, visually, in realistic photography, while paintings are vaguer.

Maayan: There is a strong feeling of disorientation when one encounters your work, as if they capture a different time and place…what are the motivations for this choice?

Eran: To be honest, the choice was not planned. When digging into this issue I suppose it may reflect a certain frustration of mine, that many neurobiologist share, that despite many achievements in brain research, we know very little about the higher functions of the brain, such as perception, and cognition. Eminent scientists like the Nobel Prize winners, David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel, Eric Kandel, together with Masao Ito, managed to unravel complicated issues concerning vision, memory and cerebellar functions, but we are still far away from a real comprehension. So, perhaps, unconsciously, I am developing my creative style in the mode of Media Aetas (the Middle Ages), declaring lack of knowledge, with no one to blame.

Maayan: Your photography creates obscure settings in which you explore the cultural representation of nature. For example, when you juxtapose surgical and autopsy instruments, preserved organs and dead animals—and literally arrange them on a plate—how do you view the proximity between these social spheres? How do you distinguish between the realm of nature and what can be viewed as ‘natural’?

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Untitled (Life Science Series), 2011

Eran: These boundaries visions of surgery practices, the disruption of body envelope are traumatic ones, if you are not accustomed to it, there are also moral issues involved whether it is in the clinical environment or in the research territory. Once, when attending a meeting regarding possible surgical intervention in epilepsy, a speaker presented a case in which a decision was taken to remove the seizure focus in a child brain, while a senior neurologist surgeon seating near by commented, he would never act similarly in this case. These contemplations are frequent and I believe that there is no wrong or right in most cases, however, the burden is intolerable.

I wish to take the scene to a different context, exploring the limits of what is perceived as pleasant, or beautiful. Many viewers actually confessed that usually they have tough time visualizing organs, or taxidermies; but here they can handle the assault on propriety while satisfying their curiosity, or enjoying the confusion. The inclusion of china plates? I don’t know exactly why—possibly as an absurd decorous touch to the specimen, admiring nature, but far away from expected ‘natural practices.’

Maayan: Your work brings to mind questions about the relations between vision and neuroscientific knowledge and in a way lends to Plasticity: the fact that the brain changes through life and is affected by both active and passive sensory experiences, how would you position your work in terms of these processes?

Eran: My work confronts the viewer with the neurological elicitors of ‘animal reminder’ mentioned earlier. Many viewers express delight, but add that while the photographic study is titillating, it also induces strange feelings, frequently. So, the observer has to deal with issues of visual repulsion associated with issues of body injury and contemplation of mortality. Here, as a neuroscientist, as well as a photographer, I’m familiar with certain neuro-physiological features of our visual brain and the phenomenon of visual plasticity. There is recent research showing that the mature properties of the visual system depend on the visual exposure in the critical developmental (‘plastic’) periods of each species. In other words, what we are able to perceive, and our ability to manage those images, neurologically, has possibly to do with our past experience. So, interestingly, the findings of those studies play a role in the final shaping of the visual system that will depend on the inherited characteristics, as well as acquired experiences, and might play a role in how comfortable people are with the subject matter of my photographs.

Maayan: The images you produce are visually provocative and dramatic. What is the role of emotions in your work, if we regard them from the perspective of neurophysiology?

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Untitled (Life Science Series), 2011

Eran: When responding to this question I have to say few words about V.S. Ramachandran and W. Hirstein pivotal article titled: The science of Art: A neurological theory of aesthetic experience. The two neurologists suggest that “the artist either consciously or unconsciously deploy certain rules or principles (laws) to titillate the visual areas of the brain”. Out of the eight laws they propose, one specifically seems relevant to my images. It is called the “peak shift effect”. Here, they claim that certain visuals will serve as super-stimuli for our brain’s primitive limbic system, responsible for emotions, and will therefore attract the viewer (recruiting also higher, more intellectually-based brain functions in the process). “This principle holds the key for understanding the evocativeness of much of visual art” they claim.

I think that with the neurological trigger of “animal reminder” I mentioned earlier, I subconsciously wished to present the viewer with that emotional super-stimulus of the limbic system. As a scientist, I am fascinated by trying to approach the brain as the ambivalent elicitor of repulsion on one hand and curiosity on the other one. Philosophers have often expressed the paradoxical enjoyment and satisfaction gained by observers of certain repulsive visuals. Immanuel Kant comments, in his 1764 work, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime that, “nothing is so much set against the beautiful as disgust.” In his Critique of Judgment (1790), where he focuses on the ‘taste’ of the individual rather than the ‘form’ of the object, he claims that what makes the object abhorrent is precisely its outrageous claim for desirability”. In another example, writer Sianne Ngai quotes from Proust’s Swann’s Way: “I thought her so beautiful that I should have liked to be able to retrace my steps so as to shake my fist at her and shout, ‘I think you are hideous, grotesque; how I loathe you!’”

Maayan: We have been talking about neuro-aesthetics, a field which engages with scientific methods in order to study aesthetics experiences, and about the claim of professor Semir Zeki that: “…the artist is in a sense, a neuroscientist, exploring the potentials and capacities of the brain, though with different tools. How such creations can arouse aesthetic experiences can only be fully understood in neural terms. Such an understanding is now well within our reach.”  How would you view this statement?

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Untitled (Life Science Series), 2011

Eran: Before getting to my answer I have to mention two groups of Neurobiologists engaging lately with the neuro-aesthetics field, the field focusing on the interface between art and neurophysiology, or perhaps better “The Brain and the Arts”: Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and colleagues from UCSD and Semir Zeki and Colleagues from University College London (most what we know about the visual regions, responsible for color and motion, V4 and V5 came from Semir Zeki’s outstanding research). Both groups deserve great appreciation for getting into a very slippery route, and despite commentary, they really ignited essential discussions between Neurophysiologists and Philosophers.

I would like to respond with a quote from an article by Semir Zeki. “It is for this reason that I hold the somewhat unusual view that artists are neurologists, studying the brain with techniques that are unique to them and reaching interesting, but unspecified, conclusions about the organization of the brain”.

Like Zeki, I see art as an extension of the artist’s brain, where creation is a process, imposed by the brain. In that sense I believe, the artist is more like a ‘patient’ than a neurologist. The quality of his art will depend on the ‘story’ he is telling us. Some will present boring material; others will titillate, surprise and arouse us. I do not think that sincere artists are deliberately planning how to shock the crowd; I tend to think that their inner world is entangled with neuro-elicitors and we benefit from being at the receiving end of that process.

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Untitled (Life Science Series), 2011

Yet, in spite of all of this research by Zeki and others considering phenomenological data, we are still not yet in a position to understand from a neurophysiological point-of-view, “what makes it art?” Since most of this research concerns high functions of the brain, we are still far from being able to make definite statements. Certain data has been derived from neurological lesions, due to injuries or neurological diseases, surgical interventions and recent functional MRI (fMRI) advanced studies. So, we know the location of activity that correlates with our determination of beauty for example; but we still lack the essential understanding of perception and cognition, which are the cornerstones for the nexus between Brain and Art.

Maayan: What is your next project? In what ways might it depart from your current work?

Eran: I do have certain ideas in both fields of photography and neuro-aesthetics, which I want to pursue, but it’s too premature for public discussion.

By Maayan Amir, Contributing Writer

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Untitled (Life Science Series), 2012

Eran Gilat is a neurobiologist and avid art photographer. Eran holds a B.Sc. in Biology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, M.Sc. and D.Sc. in Medical Sciences from the Israel Institute of Technology (Technion). Eran conducted his post-doctoral studies in Neuroscience Department at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (NYC). Currently he is a senior professor on leave from the Israel Institute of Biological Research. The “Life Science” Project was first introduced in a solo under the auspices of the New York Photography Festival, 2011, invited for a solo to the Herzliya Art Center Gallery, and to Haheder Gallery, Israel; and to the Lodz International Fotofestival 2012. Also to Gallery Huit, Arles Open Salon, Philadelphia Photo Art Center, the coming Cape Town Photography Festival (MoP5, 2012), the Art of Photography show at San Diego Art Inst. and Millennium images exhibition- London. Eran has presented at United Photo Industries Gallery in NYC and soon will exhibit at the Edward Hopper House, Nyack, NY (date to be announced).

Maayan Amir is an artist and curator. Maayan holds a B.A in Art and M.F.A in cinema from Tel-Aviv University. She is currently studying for her Ph.D at the Research Architecture Program, Goldsmiths University of London.

Acknowledgment: Eran wish to thank Sam Barzilay, creative director of United Photo Industries for his unique judgment of photography, for his presentation at NYPH and for continuous support. Also to Varda Genosar, director of Herzliya Art Center Gallery, Israel, for generously facilitating an extended exhibition in her gallery. Many thanks, too, to the Steinhardt Natural History Collections of Tel Aviv University.

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