A journey through the brain: Artist uses neuroscience in her work

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 14 2011 9:11 p.m. MDT

Artist Amy Caron walks into Waves of Mu, her two-room show about mirror neurons, at the University of Utah Film and Media Arts Building on Wednesday, Sep. 14, 2011. She has worked with researchers at the University of Utah Neuroscience Center to construct an artistic look at how the human brain works.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When artist Amy Caron enters a room, you can't help but have your attention drawn to her. She's been wearing the same wedding dress every day for the past year as an art project.

What began as a steel white, satin, wedding dress has degraded over time, becoming dark and torn.

"I feel like I'm making a textile sculpture where the main ingredient is time," she said, adding it is a project making a statement about commitment and perseverance.

"As an artist, I really like to push boundaries," she said, shifting in her tattered dress.

Caron describes herself as an artist who thrives on taking on new challenges. After coming to Utah to be an aerial ski jumper for the U.S. Freestyle Ski team, she enrolled at the University of Utah to earn a bachelor's degree in dance. She then discovered art.

Eager to join a New York art program that encouraged artists to team up with professionals in other areas, Caron entered an ambitious proposal: doing an art exhibit exploring the human brain. She said the idea came to her while watching a BBC program about neuroscientist Dr. V.S. Ramachandran and his work on mirror neurons.

"I kind of just went crazy and cooked up this grand idea. I thought neuroscience sounded impressive, but I knew nothing about it," Caron said.

It took her a year of research, working with some of the world's top researchers in neuroscience from Harvard, University of California at San Diego and researchers in Italy. It took two more years to create the exhibit and write the roles performers play for each part of the brain.

Since then, her project has been displayed across the country, including New York and Duke University. In 2009, her show sold out at the University of Utah. Caron's work has now come back home.

Waves of Mu is part display, part interactive and part theater art. People enter a room that bombards the senses at every angle. The latest version was also contributed by researchers at the U.'s Clinical Neurosciences Center and involves the U. College of Fine Arts.

First thing, you have to take off your shoes.

Walking on soft red pillows, much like the soft tissue of the brain, patrons are greeted by two dazzling Swarovski crystal chandeliers. They are the frontal lobes of the brain.

Each section of the room represents a part of the brain. Objects and performers then represent each section's functions.

A tangle of typical orange hardware extension cords crisscross the room. Caron said because the brain is utilitarian in its function, it seemed appropriate to use something found in a hardware store.

A secretary at the center sits at a desk, frantically answering phone calls, delegating orders, communicating with patrons. She represents the thalamus and the coordination and delegation role it plays in the brain.

Patrons are also lead to a presentation that focuses on what makes humans unique: their ability to feel empathy and social interaction.

"The theory is that it explains things like empathy and social intelligence. They allow us to literally mirror and understand the acts and emotions of others," said Dennis Jolley, spokesman for the U. Neurosciences Center. "The brain is one of the last great frontiers. Neuroscience at its core is about really looking at things from a lot of different perspectives."

Jolley said an artistic work about the brain can teach people about how the brain works, and a little bit about themselves.

"We think there's real value to that for the public, for neuroscientists and for the artistic community to get exposure to science as well," he said.

Tickets for Waves of Mu are $7 online. The show is scheduled to run through Oct. 2.

Caron is also currently installing a two-story architectural art display at The Leonardo, next to the Salt Lake City Main Library. The center is expected to open Oct. 8.

E-mail: gfattah@desnews.com

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