Irene Brown is a sculptor and site–specific installationist. Her research and practice is engaged with wonder, focusing on the history and philosophy of science, specifically cabinets of curiosity (wonder cabinets), investigating the threshold between aesthetic and scientific realms.
In 2010 she established the Gallery of Wonder (GoW) as a discussion point and exhibition facility for research into the evocation of wonder through visual display.
“A certain kind of looking, the origins of which lie in the cult of the marvellous and hence in the artworks capacity to generate in the spectator surprise, delight and admiration….for it is one of the distinctive achievements of our culture to have fashioned this type of gaze, and one of the most intense pleasures it has to offer”.
GoW has two cabinet-based exhibition venues in Newcastle, one in the Great North Museum: Hancock, the and the other set into two windows of Fine Art Department of Newcastle University overlooking the Quadrangle. The physical framework of the two venues promotes the interdisciplinary nature of the project and encourages the questioning of the conventional relationships between art and science, gallery and museum.
GoW has presented 30 individual exhibitions over two years. A total of 36 contributors from across the UK have produced new work in response to the wonder research brief. The programme was curated from an Internet call to participate, inviting artists, scientists, writers and researchers to engage with and contribute to the project. The website provides a database, disseminating the outcomes and presenting images and texts for each project. On June the 14th 2012 GoW held Working Wonder, a one-day international conference at Newcastle University. A publication based on the discussions and papers presented during the conference is due to be published in 2014.
Building upon research outcomes of the GoW project, Brown continued to explore the potential of art to reinterpret and represent historical information in a manner that engages and stimulates ‘wonder’ in the viewer, producing several new artworks for specific sites of historical and scientific interest in the North East. These temporary site-specific installations provide alternative approaches to conventional methods of informational display, stimulating debate and encouraging museums and historical sites to explore the potential of art to attract and expand their audiences.
May 2013, a multi video installation, part of the group exhibition Returning to the Philosophers Table at the Literary and Philosophical society of Newcastle upon Tyne. It recalls the seafaring expeditions of discovery made by early explorers of the 17th and 18th centuries. These pioneers of science provided the objects and specimens that were studied and discussed at the philosophers table at the L&P and were the origins of the collections of the natural history, ethnography and antiquities museums in Newcastle. In amongst the large, ancient books on geography, history and travel, a small video of the reanimated image of the decommissioned St. Mary’s Lighthouse, Whitley Bay, sends out a continuous rotating beam of light, illuminating the large water filled flask that contains it. The light calls silently to the other illuminated spheres within the darkened room; five small glass flasks, each holding a tiny projection of an animated ship. One ship is tossed endlessly in a storm, another looms out of a fog bank and yet another futilely attempts to row itself out of a becalmed sea. Each miniature scenario has its own sound-scape, drawing the viewer in and completing the mesmerising illusion.
June 2013, a video and sound installation commissioned by the National Trust. The work formed part of Building Dreams, a group exhibition (4) to mark the 150th anniversary of Cragside House, Northumberland. Home of Lord Armstrong, it was the first house in the world to be lit using hydroelectric power. Fulmination presents a vivid climatic event within a large glass chemistry flask, placed amongst the existing artefacts within Armstrong’s study at Cragside. A dramatic thunderstorm crashes repeatedly, flashes of lightning illuminating a tempestuous landscape where Cragside House appears held, fully three dimensional within the centre of the glass sphere. The piece provokes evocative associations between powerful natural forces and Armstrong’s harnessing of the elements to create hydroelectricity. The atmosphere in the room reflects the dangerous and magical potential of early experiments with electricity.
June 2014, Centre for Fine Art Research, School of Art, Birmingham Institute of Art & Design. Exhibited as part of the ‘Twice Upon a Time: Magic, Alchemy and the Transubstantiation of the Senses’
This installation traces connections between electricity, the supernatural and magic and is based upon investigations conducted during Irene’s time as Research Fellow at the Bakken Museum of Electicity and Magnetism, Minneapolis USA, October 2013 and ongoing, practice based research into electricity, mesmerism and magic.
Ten salt water battery powered projectors project images into water filled chemistry flasks presented on metal and glass stands. The images used rang from Charles Rabiqueau’s Le Spectacle du feu élémentaire ou Cours d'électricité expérimentale (1753) and Jean Aldini’s Essai theorique et experimental sur le Galvanisme (1804) to Hypnotism, Mesmerism and the New Witchcraft by Ernest Abraham Hart Smith (1896),The Perfect Course of Instruction in Hypnotism, Mesmerism, Clairvoyance, Suggestive Therapeutics, and the Sleep Cure: Giving Best Methods of Hypnotizing by Masters of the Science by the Psychic Research Company (1901) and finally to Magic: 1400s-1950s by Jim Steinmeyer, Ricky Jay, Noel Daniel (Editor), Mike Caveney. (2013)
The installation utilizes technology originally developed by Alessandro Volta in 1800. Each Battery is made from 36 separate units, test tubes that are held in a specifically designed wooden frame. Each tube contains a strip of copper and a strip of zinc that are wired together in series. When salt water is added to the tubes enough electricity is generated to power an LED. The LED is housed in a small copper tube with a lens at one end and a slot to take a tiny, 6mm slide.
There was a time when science and the supernatural and had an almost tangible connection, a time when it seemed possible that science would be able to prove the existence of invisible worlds. Natural philosophers of the late seventeen and early eighteen hundreds were beginning to answer many of the long-standing fundamental questions. Innovative discoveries and significant leaps in human knowledge were being made and there seemed a real possibility that these new scientific methodologies would eventually be able to reanimate the dead, prove the existence of a spirit world and even capture a soul leaving the body.
Early experiments with static electricity and magnetism led to pseudo-scientific theories that the body contained a ‘magnetic fluid’ that could be manipulated to cure all ills. Franz Anton Mesmer (1734) introduced several systems for treating patients by ‘balancing and harmonizing’ this magnetic fluid. Some of these methods induced ‘hysteria’ and others a kind of ‘magnetic sleep’. In this pre Freudian time, the unconscious, ‘mesmerism’ and even sleep were, as yet unexplained. Did consciousness physically leave the body when we slept? Was the soul and consciousness the same thing and was it possible to communicate with the dead through the ‘unconscious’ living?
Armand Marie Jacques de Chastenet, Marquis de Puysegur, (1751–1825) an avid follower of Mesmer, conducted many experiments on what he termed ‘artificial somnambulism’. Using hand gestures, eye contact and verbal suggestion he induced a kind of waking sleep in his subjects. There were many theories at this time as to the exact nature of this ‘mesmerism’. Puysegur, himself believed that these somnambulists were capable of perceiving objects and events not available to the senses, that they had a ‘sixth sense’ and that this unexplained mental phenomena had connections to clairvoyance.
A rash of mediums appeared in the 19th century; people claiming to be in contact with supernatural beings while within a mesmeric trance. Séances abounded in Europe and the USA with unexplained phenomena such as tapping sounds, objects moving, musical instruments playing independently, disembodied voices and apparitions presented as proof of communication with the spirit world.
Attitudes towards the idea of second-sight, mesmerism and somnambulist visions, ranged from open-minded curiosity to satirical derision. Scientific principles were applied in an attempt to prove/ disprove the existence of the supernatural, reflecting a popular desire to explain events such as ghost-sightings, telepathy and second-sight. However, it was not science that held the answers but magic. Many eminent scientists were convinced of the validity of the powers particular mediums, tricked by psychological illusions, dexterous manipulations and complex devious devices that later became the mainstay of many famous magical theatre acts.
Brown has since continued to focus her research on the history of electricity traveling to the USA in October 2013 to spend two weeks as the Research Fellow at the Bakken Museum and Library of Electricity and Magnetism in Minneapolis. Here Brown studied the electrical experiments of early natural philosophers such as Volta, Galvani, Aldini and Mesmer, developing an extensive resource of information and photographic images including those of over 50 separate items from the artifact collection. This now forms the basis for a new body of research that explores the role of electricity in early anatomical and medical experiments.