It was exactly a year ago that a rather curious proposition arrived by email from the novelist Robert Harris. We’d been friends many years before, but had lost touch.
He explained he was now working on the plot for his next novel. The main character was a brilliant physicist-turned-hedge-fund-manager called Alex Hoffman; he wanted him married to an artist. My art, he said, bore a direct correlation to the novel’s central theme: artificial intelligence. Robert asked if he could bestow my art on his fictional artist, Gabrielle. There would be no other similarities.
Intrigued, I drove to meet Robert in a country pub hidden in the Berkshire Downs. The novel’s title, he disclosed, was The Fear Index, so called because of the revolutionary system developed by Hoffman to make billions on the financial markets through tracking human emotions – in this case fear. “I remembered your art,” Robert said, “and I thought, it’s absolutely perfect. It’s an opportunity for Gabrielle to meditate on the brain and on her husband – the brilliant physicist who is losing his mind – and for her husband and other characters in the book to reflect upon it.”
I could follow his train of thought. A few years ago, while studying anatomy at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, I developed a technique to reconstruct the human body, and in particular the brain, by drawing or engraving details from MRI or CT scans on to multiple sheets of glass, layer by layer. This method allowed me to expose the extraordinary inner architecture concealed beneath the surface of the human form, thus creating the most objective form of portraiture. The image floats ethereally in its glass chamber, but can only be viewed from certain angles; from above and the side it vanishes and the viewer suddenly finds himself staring into a void. Since then I’ve undergone a series of MRIs myself to create self-portraits, and, most recently, reconstructed a 2,000-year-old Egyptian child mummy to reveal its human form in 3D without disturbing its bandages.
After I agreed to Robert’s request, he began to painstakingly elicit every detail of my working life; it was like being complicit in your own identity theft. “Your studio is a Victorian-style conservatory?” he confirmed. “Fine. I’ll build that on to the Hoffmans’ house.” I provided an inventory of my studio, which was replicated down to the tin of Taylors of Harrogate Earl Grey Tea in which I keep my drill heads. During the months of writing, I received updates from Robert. In the opening chapter, Alex Hoffman is violently attacked and is forced to undergo a scan. It struck me that if Robert was so meticulous in his research he should perhaps submit himself to an MRI; meanwhile I could create his portrait from his scans. He agreed in the name of research.
I turned for help to Dr Stephen Golding, a radiologist at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford and collaborator on my previous art projects. It was agreed Robert would be scanned out of hours one evening, for a fee to be paid to the hospital. Robert lay motionless in the tunnel for 35 minutes, allowing the radiologist to acquire the scans I requested – axial, coronal and sagittal. He emerged looking stunned. “It was a completely out of body experience,” he said. “I could feel something tangible passing through my head… It was bizarre. It makes one conscious of one’s brain as a piece of high-end machinery.”
Several weeks after finishing the novel, he was in reflective mood: “The book is meant to be a modern gothic novel with echoes of the great 19th-century gothic novels. Lying on the slab, with all that electricity going on around, was pure Frankenstein. It just tied in perfectly with the way the book developed and helped reinforce it.”
When finally presented with his finished portrait, Robert stared at the glass cube, transfixed at seeing the inside of his head laid bare, his brain floating before him. “I had expected not to recognise myself but it’s unmistakably me. It’s like looking at the equivalent of an interior monologue – very apt for a novelist. The more one looks at it the more one sees: it’s impersonal and yet almost embarrassingly intimate.”
Angela Palmer’s work on the Egyptian mummy will be exhibited at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, November 26 to March 2012; www.angelaspalmer.com