Kevin Todd: Magnetic resonance

(The Hellenic physicians) Herophilus and Erasistratus ... were given criminals from the prison by the kings (of Egypt) and dissected them alive: while they were still breathing they observed parts which nature had formerly concealed, and examined their position, colour, shape, size, arrangement, hardness, softness, smoothness, connection ... [1]

Until the twentieth century, in order to obtain images of the interior workings of the body, life was threatened in a terminal way and the material for dissection was usually already deceased (as opposed to the rather gruesome event described above). Emptied of its vitality, the body was an uninhabited vessel available for objective, scientific use. Skills of acute observation were necessary to record this body in an equally dispassionate manner, with artistic self-expression kept to a minimum. The anatomised body became understood through illustrations which revealed the interior form, but not the elusive soul.

Rembrandt’s group portrait The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholas Tulp (1632) depicts several physicians engrossed in overseeing anatomical dissection on a corpse. Less obviously, it also implies the artist’s presence. Rembrandt’s skills of observation function as purveying knowledge, simultaneously demonstrating the surgeons’ various hand gestures and revealing their underlying anatomy through dissection. What is being stressed is the impossibility of the artist to be both subject and recorder of the event; life and death were obviously antagonistic states under the circumstances. The anatomy of the hand could be revealed only if the body was deceased and its function could only be described from the exterior.

It is now no longer necessary to dissect the body in order to achieve an empirical base for knowledge. The role of artists as handmaidens to science, to record information that the surgeon revealed, has become redundant. The surgeon now has access to images of the body through techniques that previously relied on painful or life-threatening surgical procedures. Acronyms such as MRI, PET, or CT mean that knowledge can now be gained through technology which is non-invasive and pain free. What this also means is that the function of the body, and not just its form can be observed, opening up possibilities for unique encounters between the exponents of medical technology and artists whose concerns lead them to this field.

The Irish–Australian artist Kevin Todd critiques the idea of searching for an objective truth in respect of the body via scientific analysis, by becoming both subject and object through the use of medical imaging. He establishes his work firmly in the tradition of self-portrait, where a critical analysis of one’s own physical visage is meant to reveal an insight into the artist’s personality. His self-portraits reveal less of an artistic personality, but more than a physical likeness. Through focussing on the interior of the body his works encapsulate anatomical images gained via technology, a sense of the imaginative potential of the mind, and a slice of his possible future. This work investigates the intangible, elusive aspects that make us who we are, and effectively parodies attempts to capture this through using rational, objective means.

Todd’s self-portraits consist of multiple profiles of his own body: an image gained from Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI),[2] a computer enhanced geometric pattern, and a sample of his DNA. This presents a different means of obtaining an image, as opposed to perspective, used traditionally to indicate the position of an object as seen from a distance. This is an excursion into the scientific realm of analysing the substance itself, to examine the workings of the body down to a microscopic level. The body presented to the viewer is literally the subject, it is not objectified or separate from a dispassionate observer.

This search for objective truth through self-analysis using technological — rather than psychoanalytical — means is an important aspect of his work, which is read as textual information in a cartographic or scientific manner, rather than artistic self-expression. The clean, rational, almost clinical nature of the work betrays its medical origins and simultaneously critiques our unquestioning belief in such systems to deliver “truths”.

The images are gleaned from the laboratory environment where white coats, and not paint-splattered overalls are de rigeur: The MRI scans were taken at two hospitals in Tasmania; the tiny DNA samples were grown as a result of work with the Government Analyst Laboratories in Hobart and the artist was influenced by a residency at the Holman Clinic at Launceston General Hospital. Through his use of computers to manipulate the material derived from these sources, Todd maintains a visual language which approximates that of medical technology. As a result, the images oscillate between being read as art and information.

Todd’s self-portraits address the notion of identity, but the question posed is not  “who am I?”, but  “what am I?”. The partial answer, gained through medical imaging, proposes that he is literally constructed of a physical, tangible substance that can be captured live. No longer does one have to be dead in order to be analysed in an anatomical way, but one can be observed as a complete being, alive. This shifts the manner of viewing the body from dispassionately observing an inanimate, emptied form, to a more intimate consideration of animate function. The collective title of Todd’s work Shifting Paradigms – Self-portraits, alludes to this change in perception of the body, shifting from observing the form of the body to its function. The living, thinking, sentient body can be seen as it operates, albeit in a supine position. Paradoxically, what is reinforced is how little knowledge of those intangible human elements can be gained through observation, even with the latest technology and a living body.

Photography may be seen as the culmination of a project that began with the use of optical instruments to assist the naked eye in describing the form of the body in a static state. Perhaps the ultimate statement from this project was unwittingly made by Joseph Jernigan, the  “Visible Human” who left his body to science in 1993. He, or at least his body, was freeze-dried after he was executed by lethal injection in Texas and was subsequently sliced into 1878 thin pieces, photographed and published on the Internet and CD-Rom. You can view any part of his anatomy in any way, except working. Missing are the animate aspects that produce not only quantifiable attributes and responses, but intangibles such as imagination, fantasy, estimation and memory that originate from the sensate body.

These invisible attributes have remained out of reach of the most advanced technology, in spite of the fascination they have held for physicians and philosophers alike. The 15th century German Johann Lindner literally drew a connection between the sense organs and the faculties of the mind, which he saw as coalescing in a point above the eyes known as the Senso Commune. His late medieval concept of the mind parallels the geography of the Hereford map, in that it bears little resemblance to the empirical knowledge we now have of the world, but is invaluable in providing a visual map of medieval philosophy. Leonardo da Vinci saw the Senso Commune as the seat of the soul, and drew a more precise location for it at the junction of the optic nerves, a more refined location for abstract thought than the ancient Greeks had judged. They had placed the imagination at the liver – “linking thinking with drinking” – in contrast to elevated renaissance concerns that linked the soul to vision, light and truth. During the Enlightenment, Descartes placed it in the glandula pinealis region of the brain, stressing the separation of mind (soul) and body (machine). We have inherited this Cartesian dichotomy, illustrated by the ethic that life is presumed to be expired when brain-death occurs.

Todd’s project continues the historical search for the soul and other intangibles by scanning his body in the places where it was thought to reside, knowing full well that its existence is impossible to fathom by these means. The life force, while obviously present, remains elusive to capture through objective means. In an inverse logic, the absence of the soul makes its presence felt even more keenly — to search for its actual existence is a challenging task akin to chasing rainbows. But then, how can you tell when you have found it?

As well as organs, imagination, consciousness, and desire are potentially present within the body, and are manifest in physical ways. Thus the geometric patterns in Todd’s self-portraits have no referent in the real world, but are viewed as part of the creative process emanating from within the artist’s mind, housed within the body. In this way, the geometric patterns all emanate from a corporeal source, despite being objectified as scientific, rational and purely intellectual. An overlap occurs between the concepts of culture and nature: are numbers cultural constructs or naturally occurring? The Cartesian split of mind and body, which has been the mainstay of western metaphysics since the seventeenth century, separated the workings of the two spheres as exclusive. While art cannot necessarily overcome this historical dichotomy, it can question the presumed orthodoxy of such a statement.

Todd’s previous work Anatomies investigated the microscopic world of viruses using images derived from a scanning electro-microscope. Printed large and pinned to the wall, these viruses bore an uncanny resemblance to the macrocosmic world as seen through a telescope. They also made disconcerting parallels between the body and the machine, both under assault from twentieth century viral mutations. His excursions into the microcosmic world of viruses and DNA revealed a fundamental geometric pattern to the genetic material that makes us who we are. The familiar double helix of Deoxyribonucleic Acid has become synonymous with reproduction, cloning and questions of identity, of ‘how we are who we are’.

Todd’s inclusion of a tiny sample of his whole DNA [3] in his self-portrait presents us with the possibility of cloning an actual replica of the artist himself – a real, live self-portrait – which may be possible in the not too distant future. Just imagine, two Kevin Todds grown decades apart in different countries; they would be genetically identical, probably sporting the same dark hair and green eyes, but what else would be replicated? Could a life’s experiences also be replicated in order to achieve a truly identical clone? Where does identity – or the soul for that matter – lie? Recently the successful cloning attempts that have resulted in Dolly the sheep in Scotland and a pair of monkeys in the USA have prompted many ethical and philosophical questions that again examine the influence of genetic material and/or environment on the development of personality. The search for the ‘gay’gene, the ‘disease’ gene, are all terrifying in their potential to collapse identity and experience into simply the genetic material of which you are made.

If a self-portrait tells us as much about the era in which the artist lives as their appearance, then the possibility of cloning Todd could reveal how much his environment has played in creating his identity, and possibly more about his soul than he would like us to know. What is left when the familiar affectations are gone? What are the intangible aspects of the body that a pursuit of objective knowledge fails to see? Perhaps Merleau-Ponty was right when he wrote “It is the soul which sees and not the brain” and all of Todd’s work reveals the soul.


  1. ^ 1.John Boardman, Jasper Griffin, Oswyn Murray, Oxford History of the Classical World, pp. 383-384
  2. ^ 2. MRI is derived from the laboratory technique known as Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) developed in the 1950s at Harvard University. 'The method depends on the fact that many atoms behave as little compass needles in the presence of a magnetic field. By skilfully manipulating the magnetic field, scientists can align the atoms. Applying radio-wave pulses to the sample under these conditions perturbs the atoms in a precise manner. As a result they emit detectable radio signals unique to the number and state of the particular atoms in the sample. Careful adjustments of the magnetic field and the radio-wave pulses yield particular information about the sample under study....Because the term 'nuclear' made the procedure sound dangerous, NMR soon became known as magnetic resonance imaging'. Marcus E. Raichle, Scientific American, April, 1994, pp. 40-41
  3. ^ 3. The DNA component consists of a plastic backing sheet onto which is bonded a polyacrylamide gel containing the DNA, which has been plasticised in a heat sealer to protect the gel. Each pair of bands represents actual DNA, the bands being copies of DNA from a non-coding region of Todd's von Willebrand factor gene (two copies, one representing the DNA Todd received from his father, the other from his mother), which has been 'amplified' in a polymerase chain reaction, separated, and stained. The DNA is trapped inside the polyacrylamide, and poses no medical risk.
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