- David Thorp - London 1996
The combination of art and science is a phenomenon that has been explored time and again, but there are few individuals whose work as artists can be said to properly refer to serious scientific Investigation. Most artists and scientists have specialised and in contemporary art it is rare for artists to emerge who have not been through the art school system and whose imaginings draw on knowledge gained in another field. Letizia Galli belongs to both cultures.
Before she made the decision to be an artist, Galli trained as a mathematician, working with parallel computers on problems of optimisation. Her decision to reject mathematics in favour of making art was made as part of the process of coming to terms with the intuitive and emotional aspects of her life. Throughout her development as an artist, Galli has pursued two strains in her work, one analytical, the other spontaneous. Her early sculpture consisted of geometric combinations of gridlike modules, these made at the same time as paintings produced by dropping glazes onto canvas. Each in its own way refers to an underlying order expressed mathematically or organically but, although this work may appear to refer to macrocosmic generalities, there is something deeply personal about it. Galli draws objective science into her world of feelings.
The pieces created for Body Visual consist largely of laminations, encapsulated collages. Earlier works in this medium were made as a result of and as a reflection upon psychotherapy. With titles like 'Forgive and Let Go' and 'Anger', these were therapeutic messages referring in a Zen-like way to a sense of release after successful therapy or to psychosomatic illness developed through its repression. The Body Visual series is a natural extension to this line of enquiry. In these current works Galli has focuses upon recent research in the field of neurology, the study of the brain, particularly the work of Professor Gian Luigi Gessa, at the Department of Neuropharmocology at the University of Cagliari in Italy. Professor Gessa's research explores the actions and effects of the key neurotransmitter dopamine, and how it affects human emotions, moods and passions. He is fascinated by the neurotransmitter's role in such human afflictions as mental instability, drug addiction and falling in love.
Three of Galli's four works in this exhibition are based on her research into this chemical of emotion. One, however, which could be regarded as the first in the sequence, creates a symbolic context for this body of work. Entitled simply 'Brain', it consists of a glass slide mounted in a chrome frame. In the slide, preserved in paraffin, is a very thin slice of a female human brain. The artist was given this slide while undertaking her research into neurology. To Galli, "This is the only piece of information that feels real and tangible, not mediated by any human cognitive construction". She has enhanced its symbolic quality by framing it in chrome, the common material found in hospital and laboratory fittings.
Like the glass slide, the laminations which form the other three works suggest a similar sense of sanitary cleanliness that preserves whilst containing. 'Lack and Excess' is made up of forty-nine pieces of laminated acetate and laminated canvas. The overall structure resembles the enlarged shape of a horizontal section of the human brain; the component shapes are organic, some red for blood, some grey for the brain. The positioning of these shapes has been informed by Positron Emission Technology (PET) brain scans, which produce coloured images of the brain's activity.
This work makes direct reference to mental illness. Its title reflects the scientific finding that a lack or excess of dopamine is present in mental illnesses such as depression, mania or schizophrenia. Interspersed with the brain shapes are the names of colours, referring to the 'Stroop effect' that, by introducing conflict between colours and words, measures the level of concentration which is very poor in people with these illnesses. At the centre of the work is its historical context, a copy of an engraving of the Saltpetriere of 1795, a hospital in Paris where psychiatric research was born. This image shows the conditions these patients were kept in at that time and provokes reflection on how patients are treated now, modern psychiatry and how we relate to people with mental illness.
From the brain preserved in paraffin to the brain as a symbol of psychiatric disorder; the sequence of works moves to the chemistry of love. 'My Love' presents dopamine as the neurotransmitter of pleasure. The centrepiece of 'My Love' is a drawing by the artist of her lover; the object of her desire. Here the warmth of her feelings are conflated with the cold world of the laboratory. Five little plush toy mice represent tokens of endearment that people in love may exchange, but also pay ironic homage to the hundreds of rats the artist saw in Gessa's laboratory. Other images incorporated into the work also make reference to animals used in research: a labyrinth with male and female rats and an orgy of over-dopaminated rats. Her representation of these laboratory animals raises, but does not attempt to answer, questions about the ethics and validity of experiments on animals. Lovers, cuddly toys and chocolate (Kisses and Little Kisses) are all included as symbols of pleasure and romantic love in this multi-layered work. Chocolate contains phenylethylamine, an amphetamine-like substance released by the brain of an infatuated person. Another reference to the interactivity of chemicals and emotions.
'Dopacoca', the fourth work, deals very directly with this interaction. Drugs have been used for hundreds of years to alter the emotional state of human beings. Cocaine, the fashionable drug of the late twentieth century, causes this emotional charge by fooling the 'dopaminergic' neurones. Dopamine accumulates, giving pleasure and generating a compulsion to experience more pleasure: more cocaine. In 'Dopacoca' plastic rats support the five plexiglass ovals that make up the work. Within the ovals are images of coca flowers, referring to cocaine, the formula for dopamine and PET images of a normal brain and a brain high on cocaine. The artist refers ironically to the 'Wise Rat': "a rat that during an experiment died compulsively injecting himself with cocaine, neglecting food and drink".
Other images and words run through the work: a drawing showing how cocaine fills the dopamine receptors in the brain, a scheme of the limbic system which controls moods, passions and feelings. Here, Galli is seeking to communicate some facts that link neurological research to psychiatric research in the field of addiction. Her use of text and computer schematic drawings is based, in part, on her personal experience waiting in hospital during her father's final long illness: "The overall atmosphere of sadness prevented me from making constructive use of this time. There was nothing to see and read on the walls. Consequently, I decided to make a work that apart from the impact of the image, could offer a text to last for some time."
There is a circularity within Galli's work that moves from personal subjectivity to scientific objectivity. Sometimes her work is inspired by the personal and resolved using scientific language, sometimes the other way around. The two strands that run through her work now no longer need to be separated.
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