Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?
Valeriya N-Georg: I am an artist inspired by Neuroscience, Psychology and Consciousness studies, who works with a range of media: drawing, printmaking, sculpture, digital and mixed media.
Since my early childhood I have always had a passion for drawing and have been in love with the arts for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Bulgaria, my everyday activities included: drawing, painting, playing piano, dancing modern ballet, and singing in the school choir. Yet, I have always had a strong interest in physics, biology and chemistry, often attending after school classes in these subjects. By the time I had entered High School, I had chosen to concentrate on the arts and more precisely, on drawing and painting. Fine art was what I loved and my passion for it gave me a true freedom of expression. Later on in life I graduated BA in Fine Art at the University of East London and completed an MA degree in Visual Arts – Printmaking at the Camberwell College of Art, University of The Arts London. I currently reside and work in London, where my art studio is based.
RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?
VN-G: In terms of science, my work has been deeply influenced by Antonio Damasio’s research on the relationship between the brain and the consciousness, the role of emotions and feelings in defining life-regulating processes and the mental representations of our bodily states. Also, Dr. Bruce Lipton’s ideas about the interactions between the mind and the body and the processes by which cells receive information. Leonardo Da Vinci’s amazing drawings and scientific investigations have been a long-term inspiration for me. In terms of contemporary art, James Turrell’s luminous and immersive installations which engage the viewer to meditate and gain a new understanding of the materiality of light, colour and space, where we become aware of our own senses. Bill Viola’s use of innovative technology, video, sound and water exploring the phenomena of sense perception as a new means of self-discovery, as well as, his focus on universal human experiences such as birth, death, dreams and the unfolding of human consciousness.
RB: What is the underlying focus and vocabulary of your work?
VN-G: It has been the focus of my work to unravel the relationship between the physical human body and the inner self (or the human spirit). In my practice I am investigating the representation of the invisible by depicting fragments of the physical anatomy. I am interested in exploring the boundaries between the inner and outer body; between the physical and metaphysical; tangible and intangible, by exploring the tactile and the optical image.
My artworks present drawings of fingers referencing the sense of human touch, which is of utmost importance to the way we experience life on earth. I am fascinated by the vastly complex network of nerve endings and touch receptors in the skin that define the way we perceive the material dimension of this world. The brain gets an enormous amount of information about the texture of objects through our fingertips, as their ridges are full of sensitive mechanoreceptors, which are our means of communication with the external world.
RB: Can you say something about the range of materials you use for your artwork?
VN-G: The materials I work with are different from the traditional ones used in printmaking. In my experimental days, I was trying to conceive a gel-like texture that visually resembles skin and brain tissue. The idea of using gel as my main art media was born by imagining the jelly-like fluid substance of the cytosol which makes up a significant part of all living cells.
Just as cells can make copies of themselves, I use digital printing to create large-scale digital collages made of numerous copies of smaller gel monotype prints. Constructing an image via layering allows me to explore the interplay between printmaking processes, handmade drawings and computer-generated images.
Thus, I use materials ranging from a simple paper, ink or plaster to LED light boxes and UV torches.
RB: You have collaborated with both artists and scientists. Can you say something about these collaborations?
VN-G: It was a real pleasure for me to have been able to communicate ideas with artists and scientists on various projects.
I’ll start my attention here on two of my most significant collaborations. In 2016, in response to 1001 Critical Days cross party Manifesto in the UK Houses of Parliament, I was paired with a scientist to participate in the Art and Science exhibition, ‘Tomorrow’s Child’. The project brought artists and scientists together to address the topic of pregnancy and child development from conception until the age of two to raise awareness of the importance of social and emotional wellbeing. I had the pleasure of collaborating with prenatal psychotherapist Kitty Hagenbach, MA DIP Psych. We had decided to focus our collaborative efforts on the development of the baby in the womb and how the mother’s psychological state could affect the wellbeing of the unborn by imprinting her immediate emotions onto the future child. And, thus we decided to name our project ‘Deepest Imprints’.
I wanted to portray the mother and her baby in the womb together, for the purpose of which I created two colourful ultrasound-like images depicting two contrasting maternal emotional states. ‘Perfect Harmony’, illustrates a harmonious relationship between the mother and the child, reflected by a healthy nurturing attitude of the mother, whereas ‘Anxious Touch’ conveys the feeling of a stressful and unsupported pregnancy. Here the baby’s foot is kicking in distress, while his mother’s hands caress its face in a fruitless attempt to comfort it.
I feel great about the legacy of this initiative, known as ‘Zero 2 Expo’ and the desire of the organization behind it to further this important work by creating ‘Birthing a Better Future Art and Science Exhibition’ and showcasing it nationwide as well as abroad. It raises awareness by helping politicians, local authorities and the general public understand that a greater investment in money, time and love in a child’s wellbeing from the point of conception to the age two can help build a better future for all.
Again in 2016, I was invited by the mathematician, artist and curator Iavor Lubomirov to explore the artistic collaboration of experimental printmaking and sculpture. Part of this project titled ‘Haloclines’ was exhibited in December 2016 at Jessica Carlisle Gallery in Central London. For this collaboration I have produced several pieces, which all take as their starting point ideas about the neurological mechanisms behind such human emotions as happiness or love, which arise through contact with our beloved ones. To create these feelings, the brain releases neurotransmitters and hormones. I’ve focussed on Dopamine, Serotonin and especially Oxytocin, which is secreted by the posterior lobe of the pituitary gland and is known as ‘cuddle hormone’ or the ‘love hormone’ because it is released when people snuggle up or bond socially. This hormone helps the future mother to give birth and also plays role in the let-down of milk nursing mothers. Also, it is responsible for romantic attraction, pair bonding, orgasm, social recognition and anxiety. Oxytocin reduces fear and increases trust. I created an image of Oxytocin on translucent, layered acrylic gel, thus referencing the experience of working with someone else, of trust, anxiety and joy. Lubomirov has in turn disassembled this image into small pieces and built them into an upright cylindrical form, so that my image is both contained within his sculpture and also wrapped around it. By using transparent pieces of Perspex, and raising the work vertically, Lubomirov is also allowing light to come through my monotype layered gel, drawing out the translucency of the material and the visceral skin-like quality of the image. In a sense the work illuminates an inner experience.
RB: What have you personally learnt from working in these collaborations and has this approach thrown up any surprises for you in regards to your previously held beliefs or intuitions? Are there any particular problems that have arisen?
VN-G: Following my previous answer on my two major collaborations in 2016, I would say these were definitely both very fulfilling experiences and a major learning curve both artistically and personally.
My collaboration with Kitty took on from a few conversations we had, discussing how we can both relate to the joys and challenges of a pregnancy. I had the complete creative freedom to express the notion that the maternal imprint upon the baby is of crucial importance for growing a loving bond between the mother and baby ensuring a healthy upbringing of the child. In the process of creating the monotype gel print, I came up with two images, not just one as it was expected from me. When Kitty saw them, she completely agreed with me, that it is very important for the two aspects of a pregnancy to be addressed – both, the positive and the negative. The curators of the exhibition agreed to exhibit both artworks. Me and Kitty, had really good time working together and we still keep in touch.
In Kitty’s own words, “Collaborating with Valeriya has been truly inspiring; the fingers in her images reference the many ways in which we touch one another. Artist and scientist, yet we are united in our conviction that every aspect of mother’s experience during pregnancy has a formative influence upon her baby. I feel the images born out of our shared understandings convey with great clarity the importance of nurturing our life enhancing ‘Deepest Imprints’”.
My latter collaboration was unlike any of my previous collaborations. With Lubomirov we worked together on an innovative sculpture design. I had the chance to closely experience someone else’s approach to creating artwork and it was absolutely fascinating as he is not just an artist and a sculptor but a mathematician as well, and here, the science of mathematics was in use in full gear. The precise eye of the sculptor combined with intense intuitive flair resulted in the creation of a self-proclaimed masterpiece that perfectly encapsulates the intimate relationship between artistic disarray and geometrical accuracy. Our collaborative work Oxytocin was very unique and did sell immediately after we exhibited it at Mayfair London.
RB: You were involved in a Global Eye Art Ltd commission on the theme ‘Illuminations in the Mind’. Can you say something about this and how you explored this theme?
VN-G: Yes, my work was acquired by the Global Eye Art Collection, where I have a few artworks on the theme ‘Illuminations in the Mind’. Andrew Stevenson, the founder of the Global Eye Art Collection also commissioned me to work on the subject of Optogenetics that encompasses a set of neuromodulation techniques in behavioural neuroscience based on the stimulation of individual neurons which have been modified to express light-sensitive proteins. Cutting-edge optogenetic tools allow greater specificity in the modulation of neuronal circuits and avoid side effects associated with conventional electrical and pharmacological methods.
I feel honoured to have been commissioned alongside Susan Aldworth and Andrew Carnie, who worked in collaboration on this project. I explored the theme solo by learning about current research developments in this field and found them immensely fascinating, for Optogenetic tools hold great potential in helping people with vision impairments and neurological disorders such as epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease.
The artwork I’ve created is a monotype layered gel print with ink drawings of a huge neuron, presented on a LED box. It is an interactive piece which incorporates the use of UV light paint that becomes visible when the viewer shines a UV torch on it, similarly to the way scientists are able to activate neurons in different parts of the brain using light stimulation. The reflective nature of my work and the hidden illumination colour enabled by the UV paint embody an interplay of light and a range of human emotions triggered in the viewer by engaging with the artwork, and showcase the way that human emotions arise as a result of brain stimulation with a kaleidoscope of colourful light.
RB: Can you say something about your work Corporis Fabrica?
VN-G: My solo show Corporis Fabrica was held at Lubomirov/Angus-Hughes Gallery in Hackney London, with the special assistance of the Curator Iavor Lubomirov, who came up with the title Corporis Fabrica after having a look at my work and noted that it reminded him of the anatomical book of Andreas Vesalius De humani corporis fabrica. The book was published in 16thcentury and was based on Vesalius lectures, during which Andreas Vesalius deviated from common practice by dissecting corpses to illustrate what he was discussing. In the book he presents a careful examination of the organs and the complete structure of the human body, with copies of the book being bound in the skin of executed convicts.
Corporis Fabrica is my largest work in terms of size by far but will not be the last on such a big scale. I’ve got plans for something much bigger, I just have to find the funding for it.
As Lubomirov so aptly put it:
“Valeriya N-Georg’s ‘Corporis Fabrica’ is an immersive print-based installation, in which scale and image combine to submerge viewers into a sense of their own physical self, a view from within, an experience of being both smaller and larger than themselves, of looking out from under their skin.
The work is a quest for the self within the anatomical body, for the notional mind which inhabits the body’s neural network, but is perhaps somehow other than its physical substance. It takes on birth and death, the brain and the skin, the mind and the ways thought controls life by changing the chemistry in the body. For N-Georg Science and Art are inseparable. Neurology, Psychology, Consciousness studies and Philosophy all come into play on the surfaces which she uses, which act like dissecting tables on which she explores and recreates her sense of the substances of self.”
RB: Do you think artists and scientists share any common communication path?
VN-G: Yes, they do. What artists and scientists have in common is that they are looking to be at the forefront of innovation. Both share the same curiosity and are motivated to create something new. This is how novel concepts come to life, artists ideas and scientific discoveries have led to major leaps and advances, when it hadn’t necessarily been planned for that outcome in the first place.
RB: Collaboration between the arts and sciences has the potential to create new knowledge, ideas and processes beneficial to both fields. Do you agree with this statement?
VN-G: Absolutely! And not just that. I believe that artistic and scientific discoveries are there to ultimately benefit humanity and raise awareness of the potential impact these SciArt avenues might have in broadening our horizons.
RB: What future projects are you currently working on?
VN-G: A current and a very interesting collaboration of mine is with Rozaliya Tsikandelova , a PhD student at the Medical University-Sofia and a lead scientist at the Bulgarian startup Printivo Ltd, which is attempting to recreate artificial human tissues using the advent of 3D Bioprinting. Our creative endeavour explores the dynamic nature of cellular interactions in three-dimensional space which underlies a major advantage in recapitulating cells’ natural environment, and ultimately their gene expression. We are interested in how spatial patterning determines cellular identity, and our joint project will attempt to present to the viewer the staggering complexity of life on a molecular level.
I am also working on another big project that will take years to complete and I would like to be a surprise for my audience. Meanwhile I can share with you the work I’ve just completed – Brain Stem Cell. The inspiration for this work came from Dr. Madeline Lancaster’s research as a post-doctoral fellow at the lab of Dr. Jürgen Knoblich at the Austrian Academy of Sciences’ Institute. An unexpected observation led her to develop three dimensional (3D) cerebral organoid structures, colloquially referred to as “mini-brains”.
This research is fascinating to me, as it touches on the subject of the brain and the consciousness, a major theme in my art. Development of cerebral organoids will not only further brain stem cell research in terms of recapitulating naturally occurring brain stem cell differentiation but also importantly raise the question of whether electrical activity exhibited by these organoids will one day lead to the development of artificial sentience. Consciousness for me is not something that can arise or be provoked by men, but I believe that understanding of the mechanisms by which neural differentiation occurs will, effectively, in clinical terms aid the fight against diseases of the brain, psychiatric and/or neurodegenerative disorders.
Dr Lancaster’s research is early in development, but shows that an important step needs to be taken to unlock the secrets of the human brain. Either deemed as a science fiction or reality, imagination and experimentation have gone hand by hand in every human discovery. Dwelling on subject of what makes up human consciousness has certainly ignited my own imagination and creative abilities, my artwork shedding light on a line of research that could benefit humanity in multiple ways. I believe that Dr Lancaster’s invention will provide a doorway to a range of studies that had been deemed impossible before. In her own words: “… we need to consider what seems like science fiction, but what may one day actually be possible.”
All images copyright and courtesy of Valeriya N-Georg
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