“Our sense of time is an arrow, moving in a pitiless, irreversible, horizontal motion towards oblivion, but in truth we don’t really know what time is.” Marcus du Sautoy
Louis Darget took photographs of thoughts. At the turn of the twentieth century, Darget pressed unexposed plates to the foreheads of his subjects, hoping to capture some fleeting substance of consciousness in visual form. James Roberts suggests that the resulting images – abstract, murky, inconclusive – are “articles of faith – expressions of a desire for the existence of another dimension”.
Darget’s photographs, like most of the items in the Wellcome Collection’s States of Mind exhibition, are art and science and faith and philosophy all at once. You need imagination, after all, to push at the boundaries of the known. There are intricate, spidery drawings of neural pathways; a visual representation of Nabokov’s synaesthetic alphabet; artists’ vivid impressions of nightmares and altered states. From the concept of the soul to the boundaries of sleep and memory, it’s a fascinating and occasionally terrifying meditation on what we know – or, in most cases, don’t know – about the workings of our own minds.
Because thoughts, as Darget found, are slippery things. They evade the fixity of photographer’s film or scientist’s lab. At once clinging to and unmoored from our own individual senses of self, we all know and yet don’t know what it really means to be conscious, to form thoughts, to move through time.
The Encounter is a mind-altering piece of theatre. It’s hallucinatory, disorientating, synapse-fizzing stuff. Yet Simon McBurney gives away its game right at the beginning. Engaging in deceptively simple ‘pre-show’ chitchat, he tells us that everything is a fiction. Certainly everything we’re about to see and hear is, even if it’s based on real events. The solid certainties of our existence, the things we live and die and kill for, are all just collective fictions. Stories. As present and yet as intangible as the wisps of thought snatched at by Darget.
McBurney’s show prods at those shared fictions: time, perception, faith. It is, first of all, a stunning piece of storytelling. Using sense-tricking binaural technology, McBurney and sound designer Gareth Fry build a rich, multi-layered soundscape, transporting us to a rainforest that is patently absent from the wide, sparse, yawning stage at the Barbican. The trickery is right there in front of us, exposed with no apology, but our ears say otherwise. We see a microphone, bottles of water, a box full of recording tape; we hear the chirping and humming and rustling of an entire ecosystem.
The rainforest is in the Amazon. The year is 1969 and our protagonist is Loren McIntyre, an explorer in search of the Mayoruna people. He finds them, but loses his fragile grasp on modern civilisation in the very same moment. Excitedly following the tribe, he forgets to mark the route back to his camp. Plunged into the depths of the jungle and soon stripped of both his camera and his watch, he becomes entirely dependent on the Mayoruna, a people with whom he shares no means of verbal communication. McIntyre is cut off from both time and language – two of the compasses by which we navigate our sense of ourselves and the world around us.
The Encounter is, at one level, “about” McIntyre’s experiences with the Mayoruna and his brief dislodging from the passage of time as most of us know it. But it operates on multiple other levels simultaneously. At the same time as The Encounter is a show about McIntyre and the Mayoruna, it is also a show about McBurney making a show about McIntyre and the Mayoruna (got it?). And it’s a show, too, about time, sensation and consciousness – the very fabric of human experience. McBurney, like the Wellcome Collection, is interested in states of mind.
One section of the Wellcome Collection exhibition that (ironically) lodged itself in my mind and niggled away there was artist A. R. Hopwood’s False Memory Archive. For the last four years, Hopwood has been collecting false memories from members of the public. He says that submissions to the archive tend to follow a pattern: “a memory is described, only to be undone by evidence that the recollection is faulty or by a suspicion that the experience never actually happened”. The memories themselves are usually vivid, despite being known to be impossible.
The memories in the archive range from the hilarious (“I remember running away from the hospital as a newborn baby”) to the faintly disturbing (“I always think I have a little sister that I love so much. And I can feel her presence”). But what’s terrifying, even reading the funnier submissions, is how flimsy our grip on our own past is. Memories are all that root us to time (we can only conceive of a present and a future if we possess a past) and to our sense of self (we are, clichéd though the saying may be, the sum of our experiences). So if our memories so frequently fail us, what do we have left?
Memory and time are both in flux in The Encounter. For McIntyre, his experiences with the Mayoruna lift him out of time, or perhaps just into a different relationship with it. The people of the tribe, who recognise the growing threat to their way of life from the destruction wreaked by oil giants, seek to return to “the beginning”: a time before the white man, before the deforestation, before what we call modernity.
McBurney is also tussling with time. Speaking to us, he is both now and not now. We hear his voice speaking to us from stage and speaking to us from the past in a series of recordings. These recordings overlap with other voices from the past: experts on time, people who knew McIntyre, and – most strikingly – McBurney’s (then) five-year-old daughter, who keeps interrupting him during a sleepless night while making the show. By layering those voices on top of one another, like the sounds of the rainforest, they become an indistinguishable hubbub, evoking the way in which we often experience memories. Just the odd thing jumps out: a sentence here, an idea there.
Listening to Tim Bano’s brilliant audio review of the show, there was one thing that struck me – or one thing that protrudes, several days later, from my unreliable memory of it. The podcast is framed as a conversation between two selves: his present (now, of course, past) self two weeks after seeing The Encounter, and his past self sitting in the auditorium watching the show. Reflecting on this situation, Tim describes all the past versions of himself as distant and inaccessible – as separate from who he is now as any stranger.
It’s that impossibility of really knowing ourselves, our minds, our memories that resonates in both the States of Mind exhibition and The Encounter. I’m also reminded during The Encounter of Greg Wohead’s exquisite, dizzying Hurtling, which meditates on the impossibility of ever truly being in the present. There’s something in that piece about our minds connecting, catching up, so that we can never be truly present to ourselves. In The Encounter, that feeling is amplified (quite literally, in the case of the sound): we have to connect moments in time and disparate voices; we are always coping with the incommensurability of the sounds in our ears, the images forming in our minds, and the contrasting bareness of the stage in front of us. We are – like McBurney, like everyone all the time – all forming our own fictions.
“I am convinced that great works of art tell us about shape-shifting, about both the world and ourselves as more mobile, more misperceived, more dimensional beings, than science or our senses would have us believe.” Arnold Weinstein
If everything is fiction, there’s still a question of whose fictions get told. Just a couple of days after seeing The Encounter, still vibrating with its sensations and ideas, I was stopped in my tracks by Stewart Pringle’s review on Exeunt. He describes the show as “an absolutely spectacular and absolutely state-of-the-art framework for one of the oldest colonial narratives – the white man’s journey into the unknown”. Oof. Am I so inured to the white male perspective, so adept at translating the “universal”, “neutral” narratives of white masculinity into my own experience, that the more troubling aspects of McBurney’s show just passed me by?
Writing this, I’m thinking about the awards fuss around The Revenant, and about how little of a shit I give about it. Hearing about the film – even hearing glowing reports of it – I just keep thinking about how done I am with stories of heroic white men on quests for survival, asserting their masculinity along the way. Even Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is framed in those terms: as an act of endurance. As Mark Kermode put it, discussing Leo’s chances in the (of course) overwhelmingly white-and-male ceremony of self-congratulation that is the Oscars, “Academy voters like to see their actors suffer”.
But then, I fretfully ask myself, is The Encounter really all that different? Do I just ignore its reproduction of a dominant white, male perspective because I’m blinded by its art? I’m still not entirely sure. Annegret Maerten, though, makes an interesting counter-argument to Stewart’s. She argues that, thanks to the use of technology and the multi-layered, many-times-mediated storytelling, The Encounter in fact makes a point of and problematises the positioning of the (white, male) artist. She concludes that “it’s stunning and exhausting and baffling but it’s most definitely not unexamined privilege or racist (if well-meant) stereotyping”.
I still wonder about the voices of the Mayoruna in this show; about the fact that it is first McIntyre and then McBurney – powerful white men venturing boldly into the unknown – who carry and relay those voices. Whether or not McBurney’s storytelling needs reexamining, though, The Encounter does at least make us alert to the importance of the fictions we tell and the ways in which we tell them. The show closes (spoiler alert!) with McBurney reading to his daughter from Petru Popescu’s Amazon Beaming, the book about McIntyre’s journey on which The Encounter is based. The story he reads aloud is the story of the Mayoruna’s origins, passed down from generation to generation, and then passed from the Mayoruna to McIntyre to Popescu to McBurney. And now McBurney is telling it, in the fashion of a bedtime story, to a new generation. They may be fictions, as fragile as the foundations of our thoughts, but the stories we tell still matter.