If you ask a child to draw a heart, he or she will likely give you a simple drawing of two arches meeting at a point. In fact, that’s what you’ll probably get if you ask most adults to draw a heart, too. But that simple line drawing, the universal symbol for love, looks nothing like the actual organ sitting inside the human body. That’s probably a good thing, too – the heart’s actual appearance is much less cute and romantic than its cartoon counterpart.
The human heart, though, while maybe not the most attractive to look at, is fascinating in its complexity, and a new exhibition at the Great North Museum in Newcastle, UK takes a close look at the heart in all its forms, both realistic and symbolic. The exhibit, called The Heart of the Matter, combines 3D printed models of actual hearts with artistic renderings of the organ as people see it themselves, whether that’s as a puzzle, a tree, or something else. The exhibit grew out of workshops with patients with congenital heart conditions, led by artist Sofie Layton, health psychologist Jo Wray, and bioengineer Giovanni Biglino.
“We realised there was this incredible richness of imagery that [the patients] associated with their hearts,” Biglino said. “We wanted to explore the medical and poetic perceptions. How do we see the heart medically; as an object, as a form, as a 3D print, as an image, as something with a lot of terminology? But also, how do we see it as something very symbolic, very precious, very fragile, or very resilient?”
The 3D printed hearts in the exhibition are taken from CT scans of some of the patients’ actual hearts. 3D printing the patients’ hearts, according to Biglino, not only helps doctors but the patients themselves, as they can better speak about the affected organ while holding it in their hands.
“It was the idea of what we call ‘making the invisible visible,'” he said. “The heart is something you’re very aware of, especially if you have heart disease; whether it’s because of breathlessness or an irregular heart rate, but you don’t see it. Suddenly these people, some of whom were born with a heart condition, were able to see it, to give it a face.”
The exhibition shows these literal hearts alongside more figurative representations. One patient described their heart as feeling like a Rubik’s cube without a solution, so Layton created a heart made from puzzle pieces. Another piece shows the heart growing from soil.
“In the workshops, quite a few people talked about their hearts like plants or buds or trees,” said Biglino. “It’s interesting because this is language we also use medically when we’re talking about pulmonary branches or trunks, or the arterial tree.”
No other organ in the body is viewed as metaphorically as the heart, so putting artistic imagery next its very real representations makes for a fascinating exhibition. The Heart of the Matter is at the Great North Museum until May 6th, at which time it will travel to Bristol and then London.
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