Nurturing her sculptural technique as an anatomist at the Ruskin School, Angela Palmer’s portrait include an eighth century BC Theban priest, Djeddjehutyiuefankh, and Eclipse, an 18th century thoroughbred racehorse, as well as a series based on the head of the novelist Robert Harris and, in an Ashmolean Museum work described as “sensational”, a Mummy Boy revealing the contours of a child wrapped within a 2,000-year-old Egyptian mummy.
In her incredibly intricate new work – the first to enter the Scottish National Portrait Gallery – planes of glass map sections of the brain, based on MRI scans of the artist’s brain at University College London to form a layered 3D image. The brain appears to float, only revealing itself from certain angles.
“It is an extraordinary experience, staring at your brain floating in a glass chamber before you,” says Palmer.
“I took details from 16 scanned slices of my brain and engraved those onto glass. Each glass sheet is then separated by small glass dividers and set into a glass cube by a specialist, Dave Brooks, at Instrument Glasses in Enfield, near London.
“Unlike traditional portraiture, an image of one’s brain does not depict anything recognisably ‘you’, and yet it could not be more intensely personal.
“I hope through this work, visitors will contemplate their own brain – the organ which makes us who we are, the command centre which controls our senses, our behaviour, our very being.”
Palmer’s analysis might stem from her career as a journalist. Born in Aberdeen, she also studied at the Royal College of Art until 2007, producing an installation of West African rainforest tree stumps – Ghost Forest – in Trafalgar Square and at the UN’s Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.
She considers it an “enormous honour” to appear in the gallery, and calls the position of The Artist’s Brain, beneath a frieze of some of the most illustrious Scots in history, “all the more daunting”.
“Perhaps visitors will now glance up at these great figures above and reflect on the prodigious minds bearing down at them,” she say.