(Click thumbnails to view larger images in Gallery)
When I came across Megan McGlynn’s neuro-inspired wood sculptures, one piece grabbed my attention in particular – “Structure of the Mammalian Retina”. It is not the most visually stunning example of her work. In fact it may be a more understated piece. However the title intrigued me a great deal. My mother had just suffered from retinal tear and vitreous hemorrhage in her left eye during her cataract surgery, when the doctor accidentally punctured her retina with anaesthesia needle. This necessitated a second, emergency surgery – vitrectomy – to repair the damage. I never knew that the delicate, sacred human eye can withstand such abuses!
Dealing with this unfortunate accident and preparing my mother for the procedures gave me a crash course on anatomy of the eye, and ophthalmology. McGlynn’s sculpture prompted me to look further into the biological structure of the human retina, its functional connection with the brain and the part it plays in the vision system.
Scientific images such as these helped my understanding.
Then I went back to her sculpture piece, looking for the rods, the cones, and the optic nerves.
Thankfully my mother has largely recovered from the surgeries, with her retina repaired and vision restored in the ensuing months. Meanwhile, my fascination with McGlynn’s work expanded from tracing its scientific origin to appreciating its artistic impact and peeking into the mind of its creator.
I tracked down the artist and interviewed her.
Interview with Megan McGlynn, neuroartist
BeiBei Song: After my immediate reaction to the pleasant color combinations, the first thing that came to mind when I saw your sculptures is “structure”. We humans see the world in structures. We organize the world in structures. We don’t usually think about it, but our vision system itself has structures, and each piece of your work is an intricate structure reflecting various aspects of those neural structures. Yet they are not literal representations. They each seem to be subtly conveying something – a mood, a sentiment, a question – beyond presenting anatomical systems or even functions, as if each has acquired a life of its own, especially the ones mysteriously titled, for example Synapse (The I-You Reciprocity).
What is the process or methodology by which you create these structures? Do you have an inner impulse first, then look for the scientific concept as the vehicle of expression, or do you learn about a concept first, then let it inspire an expression?
Megan McGlynn: The process is always a bit different, but you’re right, I am asking a lot of questions with my work. Why is it so natural to compare the brain to a computer? What are the similarities between manmade and organic structures? How does one visualize mechanisms of systems they can’t see?
I switch back and forth researching and collecting diagrams from neuroscience and architecture. Sometimes I start with a diagram that seems especially intriguing and move forward with materials from there. An example would be those goofy synapse diagrams with the oddly shaped neurotransmitters floating across and only fitting into their proper oddly shaped receptors. Those diagrams are an important tool for education, but are so far from the visual truth. But what is the visual truth? What other ways can you visualize a world of ever widening complexity, past the point of microscopy? These are the types of questions I’m thinking about while dealing with structures my hands and tools are capable of manipulating, and I enjoy abstracting those kinds of constructed visuals even further.
However, sometimes I let the material guide the beginnings of structures. As shapes begin to form, I start to associate them with specific concepts I’ve read about. Either way it produces similar results. I am always being driven by multiple forces: science, architecture, materials, tools and emotions, and hope to find a balance between them.
BeiBei Song: Another thing I’m curious about is the materials you use for the sculptures – the various types of wood, supplemented by various types of metal. What are some of the considerations behind your choice of materials? How do their natural properties, such as shapes, colors and texture relate either to the neural structures they represent, or mental or emotional reactions you hope to elicit from the viewers? For example, why did you use burnt mahogany for Exaptation?
Megan McGlynn: What is beautiful about wood, and often frustrating, is that every piece has its own unique characteristics based on its experiences, during growth and afterward. You can literally see how the years passed throughout its lifetime. This visible memory is really important to me in my work.
I fell in love with woodworking a few years ago and have had some training, but I’m still in the process of testing the limits of my materials, experimenting with different kinds of woods, and learning the ins and outs of decent construction. I also work mostly with scraps from fine woodworkers, which is sometimes limiting and other times can help create something really interesting. As for color and texture, it has a lot to do with the push and pull of experimenting with color theory and composition, and other information like charts and diagrams that I’ve collected.
The piece Exaptation is a perfect example of working first with the materials, trying out new things, and having that process later resonate as a scientific concept. I had imagined the outcome of that piece to be extremely different – I spent a month assembling the mahogany, thought it would look a certain way if I burned it and coated it with epoxy, and was devastated when it was so far from what I wanted. Instead of throwing it away, I tried sandblasting it. The result was really interesting, and the cut pieces fit perfectly together with other bamboo structures I had been building. The function of each structure had shifted throughout the natural evolution of the piece, which is more or less the definition of “exaptation”.
BeiBei Song: You do not have formal science training. How do you think that affects your work specializing in neural art one way or the other? What do you think are the advantages of not having that background?
Megan McGlynn: Art and science are very closely linked. They are both based on creativity and experimentation. But transformative art doesn’t need to give you answers; it only needs to ask compelling questions. I don’t know if it’s an advantage to not have a scientific background, but I know that it allows me to view concepts from a different and imaginative perspective. Whether that perspective creates something meaningful or playful or utterly useless, it depends on the viewer.
Everyone processes information differently, but at the basis of all our communications are stories. We live based on the stories we understand from the past, stories we believe about ourselves, stories we’re presented from all sorts of experts about what is real and true – I’m fascinated by neuroscience and architecture at the moment, and I’m a visual thinker. All I’m doing is turning my reactions to these stories into objects.
BeiBei Song: Your work has been selling well. What do viewers see in your creations that resonate or contradict with what you intend? Does that give you additional insight into human mind and perception?
Megan McGlynn: I think viewers respond to interesting compositions, good craftsmanship and high quality materials. I’m sure they don’t follow my exact line of thinking because my sculpture is very process-oriented and highly abstracted. But what I intend is to create something that sustains interest because, while it isn’t a truly representational object, it does have a story behind it and therefore can always be perceived differently.
BeiBei Song: Has knowing more about science, nature and the human mind impacted your own life in anyway?
Megan McGlynn: Learning more about science has impacted my life in so many ways, it’s hard to know where to start. Overall, the philosophy I’ve adopted is that learning about anything helps you understand everything a little bit more, and there is an overwhelming amount of fascinating information floating around out there that we all have access to. And, funnily enough, the more I learn about science, the less concrete the world seems. These concepts unravel my notions about existence. But it’s impossible to completely remove one’s experiential biases, and so I create strange, tiny structures to fill the gap as metaphors.