Percipio, Ergo Sum: Reviewing the ‘Synaptic Odyssey’ exhibition

Swati Joshi reports back from ‘Synaptic Odyssey’, an exhibition themed around cognition and art at Ahmedabad’s Iram Gallery in Gujarat, India, which ran from 11 March to 5 April 2024.

Art purveys experience. It challenges and disenthralls our occluded understanding of colours, luminosity, textures, patterns, blankness, smells, and sounds to sometimes ensorcell, and other times shock, viewers. The moments of time, experience, memory, feeling, movement, etc. encaptured in art rupture our comfort zone and replenish it, through brazen representation, with fardels of dauntless sensory experiences. Art revives memories, unearthing our unconscious fiduciary relationship with certain acquired responses to external sensory stimuli. And so, when I first read the title of the exhibition ‘Synaptic Odysseys’, it evoked my past sensory experience of reading the work of Santiago Ramon y Cajal (1852-1934), Charles Scott Sherrington (1857-1952), Jerzy Konorski (1903-1973), and Eric Kandel (1929), being seated on a wooden chair that wore a strong smell of turpentine.

Satyajit Dave, the curator of this exhibition, has employed the same logic in his curatorial process. Dave, who has been kind and generous in sharing information concerning materializing this show, said in a telephone interview: “This exhibition is based on the artistic engagement with the process of cognition and aims to invite the viewers to touch the artworks, smell the raw materials used in making the artistic pieces, and see everything in the gallery to develop their own unique sensory experience”. Dave’s words disembogue into the historical canon of neuroscientific research. They resonate with Jerzy Konorski’s explanation of exteroception:

The objects of the external world we deal with in our life are characterized by their “macrostructure”, which is chiefly perceived by the visual system […] and their “microstructure” or texture, whose perception is accomplished by exteroceptive somesthesis. Here belong such properties of objects as: smoothness versus roughness, porosity, softness versus hardness, elasticity versus plasticity, dryness versus moistness, sliminess, coldness versus warmth. Here also belongs the sharpness of an object or its strong pressure producing localized pain, either of the pinprick or pinching type.

Konorski 1967, 134

Dave’s idea of inviting visitors to embrace the show’s visual, tactile, and olfactory sensory experience makes the exhibition sui generis and helps visitors understand how various senses work pari passu bolstering neuroplasticity. His thoughts align with Mateos-Aparicio and Rodríguez-Moreno’s (2009, 1) explanation of the concept of neuroplasticity – of fostering cerebral capacity “through specific learning or practice, repetitive activity”. Iram art gallery’s serpentine space renders an analogous cerebral experience as it leads the guests on a multisensory journey of perception where sight, smell, and touch are challenged by the bravado of the recurrent patterns in the artworks. The meditative lambent beams of yellow light foreground the plasticity of the organic matter that has inspired the art practices and creativity. The images below demonstrate Narayan Sinha and Rakesh Patel’s artistic practices, engaging in a dialogue with the show’s theme:

Photo of an artwork made of copper, giving the impression of a leafless tree branch at first glance. But copper’s metallic malleable nature lends the piece the plasticity of plural meanings. It can be interpreted as a segment of synaptic network.
Untitled artwork by Narayan Sinha. Photo courtesy of the author.
Photo of a page of handwritten poetry on thick white paper. It is entitled 'Forest Whispers: Veins of Copper' and the body reads: 'Beneath the canopy, where sunlight weaves, / Copper veins run through the forest's sleeves / In the heart of trees, where life does bloom, / Copper's embrace, nature's loom / Roots entwined in earth's embrace, / Seek out copper's silent grace. / Through soil & stone, they intertwine, / In nature's tapestry, a design devine / In the whispering leaves, copper's tale is told, / Of strength and beauty, of stories old / As branches sway in the gentle breeze, / Copper whispers secrets to the trees / In the rustle of leaves, in the creak of wood, / Copper and nature, in kinship stood. / For in the heart of forests, where life is free / Copper and trees dance in harmony
Undated poem by Narayan Sinha curated by Satyajit Dave from Narayan’s diary. Image courtesy of the author.
A photo of a wooden artwork, which appears as a lateral image of a creature and foregrounds the concept of gaze by embedding the anatomical design of eyes in the geometric patterns of circles and triangles.
Untitled artwork by Rakesh Patel. Image courtesy of the author.

The plasticity of the show induces a dialogue between the ferocious forests and factories of the east (West Bengal) and the mellowed idyllic setting of the west (Gujarat). Sinha’s poem aptly shows “Copper’s embrace” manifested in his untitled artworks that probably depict either a tree’s branch or a segment of neural network. Sinha’s artworks embody the amalgamation of the wild chaos of the Sundarbans and the coordinated rhythms of the factory machines. Similarly, Patel’s collaboration with local woodworkers sheds light on his flexible approach to learning about the plasticity of various kinds of wood available in Gujarat for crafting his artworks. Akin to the endeavours of neuroscientists and neurobiologists who study the plasticity of the brain that involves reorganising “either the structure or the function of neurons… [which] is necessary not only for neural networks to acquire new capabilities, but also for them to remain robust and stable over time” (Appelbaum et al. 2023, 113), Sinha and Patel’s artworks are made of malleable materials like copper, steel, brass, and wood. The show proffers a multilayered unconscious experience of synaptic plasticity imbricated in the robust structures derived from malleable substances. The following images of metals, alloys, and wood blocks unfold their potential of elasticity:

A photo of a pile of copper wire and another of brass strips in a display case
Copper wire and brass. Image courtesy of the author.
A photo of a block of wood in its natural form
Wood block. Image courtesy of the author.

The show aims to establish a sustained dialogue with the audience by inviting them to participate in guest lectures delivered by Satyajit Dave, Prof. Deepak Kannal, Dr. Leslee Lazar, and Asit Bhatt. Listening to the lectures sitting right next to the artworks makes one realise, as Dave says, “how the artworks and artists are looking back at the audience”. And the image of the setting shared below conveys the caress of the artistic ambience of the gallery:

A photo of an empty lecture space. Short rows of chairs are arranged beside Rakesh Patel’s brightly painted wooden artwork, setting a proximate multisensory environment for the guests to ponder over the gaze of the artist through the anatomical design of the eyes inserted in the recurrent geometric patterns.
Lecture space at the Iram art gallery. Photo courtesy of the author.

The exhibition leaves a lasting impression on the senses, enkindling a desire to know more about the self through perception of the artworks. Dave’s curatorial reasoning creates a layered atmosphere for the plurality of experiences, which resonates with the Proustian unnamed narrator who encounters his new self each time he wakes up from his sleep. While exiting the gallery, I was acquainted with a new version of myself who had gained a heightened awareness of the role of the senses in perceiving the external environment.

About the author

Swati Joshi has recently graduated with a PhD in medical humanities from the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar.  She is currently co-guest-editing a special issue of the Journal of Medical Humanities with Jade French. Swati’s research has been published in Humanities journal, Handbook of Aging, Health, and Public Policy (Springer), Medical Humanities and The Polyphony, among other places. 

References

Appelbaum, L.G., Shenasa, M.A., Stolz, L. et al. 2023. “Synaptic Plasticity and Mental Health: Methods, Challenges and Opportunities.” Neuropsychopharmacology 48: 113-120.

Konorski, Jerzy. 1967. Integrative Activity of the Brain: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mateos-Aparicio, Pedro, and Antonio Rodríguez-Moreno. 2019. “The Impact of Studying Brain Plasticity.” Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience 13.66: 1-5.

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