As the Venice Biennale preview nears its end, I always begins to wonder: Which shows and artworks will stick with me? Why will so much of what I have seen vanish from my memory? And what will my brain actually decide to hold onto?
A wildly discursive show that just opened at the Prada Foundation in Venice takes up some similar questions, delving into how people have tried to understand, rework, and fix the human brain over thousands of years. Titled “It Begins with an Idea,” the exhibition is part of an ongoing “Human Brains” project from the foundation, and includes dozens of beguiling objects, like a 22nd-century B.C.E. cylinder (an exhibition copy, alas) that holds, in Sumerian, the first known recording of a dream and a 1930s model of the famed 16th-century anatomical theater at the University of Padua in Italy, where 200 people could watch public dissections.
The show is the work of curator Udo Kittelmann in a collaboration with artist Taryn Simon, and they have cooked up an elaborate curatorial conceit that involved asking various writers (Salman Rushdie, Ch’aska Anka Ninawaman) to each respond to one object by writing a new piece. On small screens scattered throughout the venue, a man reads those pieces. There is also a room with 140 hours of interviews with neuroscientists and screenings of brain-related content that are available online. Most of the rooms are dark, the explanatory text is small, and it is all a bit confusing.
However, the objects really do sing. They amount to one of those fairly rare Biennale experiences where you actually decide to slow down, to cut a few other shows from the day’s agenda in order to linger. While lingering as long as possible, I was particularly delighted to see a 15th- or 16th-century khipu, an Incan device with scores of cords that are knotted to record information, and that has inspired soaring fabric sculptures by Cecilia Vicuña, one of the stars of the main biennale show.
And while delighted is not quite the right word, I was transfixed in front of a Pieter Jansz Quast painting titled The Extraction of the Stone (ca. 1630). Alluding to a medieval European folk tradition of removing a “stone of madness” from the head, it is an allegorical scene of a quack doctor trepanning a man’s bloodied scalp with a sharp tool. The patient does not look pleased. At some point during a long week in Venice—on the hunt for art or cicchetti, recovering from a disappointing art display, or a missed vaporetto—surely everyone has felt like him.