This is one of the most strangely compelling artworks I’ve encountered recently: a pinhole camera made from a 150-year-old skull.
Wayne Martin Belger’s Third Eye is a human skull with a tiny hole drilled in the traditional location of the mystical “third eye.” The pinhole allows light to enter the cranium and expose photographic film.
The cranium is opened and the film accessed through an elaborate, gothic set of findings crafted from jewelled aluminum, titanium, brass and silver. The effect is steampunky, but also reminiscent of the decorative metalwork used in saints’ reliquaries.
Even more striking are the gelatin silver prints Belger creates using this camera. Ghostly and distorted, they could almost represent the visions of the skull’s disembodied spirit – the spirit, according to Belger, of an adolescent girl:
I wish Belger supplied more examples of the photos on his website, because they are the most evocative part of this concept – the idea that the skull continues to “see” after death, perhaps in an even more enlightened state, and that those visions could be captured in an imperfect way.
In Belger’s camera, “vision” is reduced to an extremely basic interaction of light with photographic film, an interaction based purely on physics, with no connection to the biology of the living brain. The association with the ghost of the child who “donated” the skull is romance, fiction, not science.
Yet at the same time, this artwork evokes a profound dilemma we have in neuroscience – the question of how to image the active human mind. An fMRI or PET scan is about as close as we can get, but when we use blood flow and glucose metabolism as a proxy for thought, are we capturing “the mind” in any meaningful sense? Can the wet chemistry of glia and neurons really yield an accurate understanding of the abstract nuances of the imagination?
Obviously, as a neurobiologist, I think basic neuroscience has given us an unprecedented window into the immaterial “mind.” The neural correlates of fMRI and PET are meaningful and useful. Yet it’s essential to respect the difference between the cellular processes registered on a PET, and the thoughts or emotions that make us who we are. They’re not equivalent. While we may eventually be able to use physics, chemistry, and modeled neural networks to explain and predict thought, at this point, our grasp on neuroscience is more rudimentary than a pinhole camera. A PET image is indirect evidence of thought, not thought itself.
Photographs, like Polaroid pied pipers, often lead us into the fallacy of believing we understand a phenomenon completely. But anyone who has actually been a thirteen-year-old girl knows full well that Belger’s pinhole camera doesn’t even begin to capture a child’s subjective, portentous view of her world. All of which makes Third Eye a really intriguing piece of art.
See more of Belger’s provocative pinhole cameras at his website. (Belger has also created a camera that pumps HIV+ blood to photograph victims of AIDS, and a camera containing an infant heart in formaldehyde to “take photos of soon-to-be mothers who are at least 8 months pregnant, and explore my relationship with my twin brother who died at birth.”)
via Art Diabolique