Aldworth explains how her practice has developed through investigations of the idea of the 'self' and the influence that seeing a dissection of the human brain has had on her work.
Q. How would you define your work in three words?
Experimental, inquisitive, interdisciplinary.
Q. What medium do you mainly work with and why?
Print. I love the serendipitous and generous quality of print – you never know at the start exactly what you are going to end up with. I love the journey you go on to make a new print. There are many stages – initial ideas and drawings, decisions over what print technique to use, plate making, inking up, putting through the press and proofing when you can think about what is working and what needs to change.
There is the added surprise of the image being in reverse, and you can achieve different results by experimenting which different paper surfaces and weights, as well as the intensity of the ink and the transparency of the ink. You can use techniques such as Chine Collé to introduce more colour or add photographic elements in prints which I did for the monotypes in Susan Aldworth: The Portrait Anatomised shown at the National Portrait Gallery in 2013.
The proofing stage allows for endless possibilities of colour and texture as you can alter the printing plate or employ other techniques. I work in etching, monoprint, and lithography and each print technique bring new possibilities as well as the chance to subvert the medium and invent new ways of working. Every new print feels like an adventure and I never tire of the process.
Q. Where do you find most inspiration for your work?
I am fascinated by questions of human identity, in particular the relationship between the physical brain and our sense of self. My starting point is often a question. For example, what is sleep? How does it impact on our sense of self? My research into the self has impacted on the materials I use in my practice.
I do not seek to answer huge philosophical questions in my work, but my practice is based on, developed and changed by my research into these ideas. I often work as an artist in residence in academic or medical institutions.
I have developed a way of working which starts with a long research phase at the beginning. I usually identify a subject or a question which I want to interrogate and identify either a scientist, clinician or institution I would like to work with, and who is interested in working with me. I then set up a residency, and have a period of time being on location. During my research, I also spend time in the studio experimenting with ideas and techniques – trying to find the best medium to express my ideas. But my work does not illustrate my research – the relationship between research and my practice is complex.
Once in the studio, I park the research somewhere in my brain, and allow sense, sensing and intuition to push my work forward. I work in print, drawing, word, video, sound, and installation depending where my research, ideas and experiments take me.
I have been exploring the self for over 20 years working across disciplines (science, philosophy, psychiatry, art, art history) and by talking to people about their lived experiences. It is endlessly inspiring and has taken me on many philosophical and methodical adventures.
Q. Take us through your working process.
Some years ago, I was invited to attend a brain dissection with a number of artists at the Brain Bank at Hammersmith Hospital. The brain is dissected in a very formal way, and the sections are laid out on a marble block. I got to thinking during the session, about how the flesh of the brain contains our personality, all of who we are. I wondered what the marks would look like if I tried to make an etching from a brain slice? It would be the ultimate portrait of someone– printing directly from a human brain.
I approached the director of the Brain Bank, who got me ethical permission to do so. I was excited and scared – was it technically possible? I was allowed to have the brain slices for just 2 days – under medical supervision. Working with master etcher Nigel Oxley, we made some experimental etchings using lambs’ brains. We discovered that there was enough greasy fat in the brain to make a resist on the etching plate. And by laying a hand shaken aquatint around the shape, we could capture both the shape and texture of the brain slice.
Working with a human brain was a transformative and emotional experience; the images revealed themselves gradually through this very ancient process and the prints, although taken from a cross-section, unexpectedly seemed to expose a consciousness at work. We made 5 etching plates on the first day. These works feel significant to me – they sort of made themselves. They are unmediated, made from the authentic marks of a human brain. A visual equivalence of the self. I think I might be the only artist to have done this.
Q. Can you remember the first work of art that you created? What was it and why was it so memorable?
The first work of mine I consider to be art is an etching called Brainscape 1. It is an etching and aquatint I made from a drawing I had done on location in a hospital. For some artists, drawing on location would be the end of the process, but for me it was just the start. I wanted to translate and transform the drawing into an etching, and to experiment with using white line rather than the traditional black line of etching to suggest x-rays, scans and a brain at work.
I wanted the print to be energetic – to look like it was emerging onto the plate. I drew fast on the zinc plate with a resist to create the white lines, and then threw chemicals at the powdered aquatint to suggest the chemistry at work in the brain. To me this etching is a portrait of the person who I had drawn being scanned in the operating theatre. This was the start of my work into exploring what it means to be human, and challenges what a portrait could be.
Why are ARR and other intellectual property rights important to you as an artist?
ACS has always been incredibly helpful in promoting my exhibitions and I can go to them for any advice on copyright I need. It is important for artists to be part of an organisation which stands up for their copyright, as it is easy for images of their work to be exploited or not credited. ACS seems to put the concerns and rights of artists at the centre of its business.
For more information about Susan Aldworth and her recent and upcoming projects, visit the artist’s website.