Breath: New Installation in the Psychology Department, PD Hahn Building, by Pippa Skotnes

(images below)

In early May 2013 Breath, an artwork installation by Pippa Skotnes was launched at the Psychology Department in the PD Hahn Building. Commissioned by the Works of Art Committee of UCT, it comprises three discrete works: a set of turning boxes visualising aspects of the history and practice of the discipline of psychology, a wall mural entitled Breath that takes as its starting point the conception of the mind as expressed by |Una Rooi, one of the last speakers of N|u, who died in 2012, and three clock-like disks dedicated to Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin and Frantz Fanon.

Visualising the mind

By Mark Solms

It is tragic how often one has to conclude that colleagues in other disciplines understand more about the subject of psychology than psychologists do.

The wellspring of Pippa Skotnes’s ‘Breath’ is the immaterial nature of the mind. She intuits that the invisibility and intangibility of the mind must have disturbed our human ancestors since the very beginnings of self-awareness. Where do the souls of our beloved sons/mothers/lovers go when they breathe their last breath? And what will become of mine? Their bodies seem to remain with us, initially unchanged, and yet their very essence is gone. What is the nature of that essence?

Surely this question was the starting point of psychology. And yet academic psychology has, from its outset, sought to distance itself from this most essential feature of the mind: its subjectivity. Proper ‘objective’ sciences do not deal with such fluffy things. So we drill hard statistical and other quantitative research methods into our poor students, until they drop, or at least until they drop their naïvity about psychology — which they had wrongly assumed tackled the richness and mysteries of the life of the mind. The mind is an embarrassment to psychology. Psychology is a defence against the mind. I have always admired and sought to emulate those few psychologists who took seriously the truism that subjectivity is a part of nature, who did not wish it away, no matter the difficulties it presented. These are the difficulties that belong to psychology; we cannot and should not avoid them.

What it ‘feels like’ to be a person is not an insignificant thing. Feelings have causal effects, no matter how awkward this may be for our physicalist world-view. (Just think of a person who kills himself because he cannot bear the pain.) Subjectivity is also possessed of general features; the life of my mind is surely not completely different to yours, it must be governed by some laws. It is the task of psychology to discover these laws. But until we properly do so, it will be the artists who carry the day. ‘Breath’ conveys more about the subject of psychology than any number of psychological experiments.

Skotnes’s Breath takes yours away

By Peter Anderson

Professor Pippa Skotnes’s commission for the newly transplanted Psychology Department is at once magisterial in its scholarship and a visual tour de force. Following the curatorial turn in much contemporary practice, Skotnes has made a work that is many and one. Her integration of several media and modes is not just technically dazzling, but works to suggest a good deal about the history of Psychology as a discipline.

Indeed, the historicity of the installation is what strikes most forcefully. Skotnes has collated quotations and milestones from the hinterland of academic Psychology and deployed them in dispositions that are both exemplary of the field and eccentric enough to celebrate the human mind and its incorrigible variety. Vitrines of archival scraps (where information is linked and fixed by drawing pins and cotton thread) yield to rotating boxes printed with the full roster of PhD titles from the Department.

At the heart of Skotnes’s installation is a double-volume mural spanning the atrium of the Department’s new home in the PD Hahn building. This vast image is so variously suggestive, and simultaneously so emphatic, that it really needs to be seen.

Launching the work, Department head Prof. Mark Solms spoke of the warmth of feeling that had been generated by Skotnes’s day-long workshop with staff members in the research phase of the project, and of how it found its way into Skotnes’s considerations, labours and ultimate artefact. Certainly, to view the mural from the stairs in the department is to feel something of what the medieval authorities meant in holding that ‘love is through the eyes’.

To do so, however, is nothing sentimental – or rather, it is to experience the knot of ‘sentiment’: sentience and emotion, out of sense and mental knowledge, and to ‘feel’ you ‘know’ it. The image is constituted of the ‘geometric symbols’ of petrographs and the entoptic forms of trance visions (Skotnes notes the correspondence of the two) and a stream of corpuscular ellipses which Skotnes says represent the languages of the world, extant and extinct. All of which is intriguing enough, and represents her interest in the symbolic architectures of higher intelligence. But the work is far more than the sum of those parts. The aggregate image seems also to be an amplified micrograph of a human cell, a neuron, say, or an ovum, in the microbiotic cloud of its context. The petrographic signs confuse the (idea of) mind with their promises of a significance beyond themselves, promising us language, but also lapse back into organic shapes and squiggles. Across the whole stream those corpuscular pods: stars in a Milky Way, sperm in a petri dish, rice, bacteria, a cosmic microwave background fluorescing as white noise on the screen of the wall – the screen(ing) of the viewer’s mind. In all, the triumph of this inescapably happy work lies in the happy work it makes for the viewer by imposing on us the endless puzzle of mind in which we make information of data.

The work is eminently accessible from the ground floor of the PD Hahn building at UCT, not more than a hundred metres from the Cissy Gool Plaza. It is historically thoughtful, visually spectacular, playfully and challengingly mindful, and a major acquisition by the University.