The Slice: Cutting to See Architectural Association Gallery, London

Beauty is in the beholding of the eye – whichever way you slice it

Reviewed,Jenny Gilbert
Sunday 05 December 2010 01:00 GMT

Director's cut, pared to the bone, cutaway view, a slice of life. We frequently reach for the imagery of cutting and slicing when we talk about ways of seeing. Perception is a matter of surfaces, be they outer or inner.

An intriguing exhibition hosted by the Architectural Association's School of Architecture, and curated by the New York magazine Cabinet, explores this notion in its widest sense. Architects, as we know, are in the habit of making meticulous scale drawings of elevations – essentially outer slices of buildings. But there aren't any of these in this eclectic show. The Slice, as it is titled, takes the form of a cabinet of curiosities, a collection of objects of encyclopaedic scope in the manner of those assembled by Enlightenment scientists for their private interest and edification.

Many of the key items on display are small and easily overlooked. One such is an 18th-century engraving of an eye operation, showing two surgeons in the act of removing the cataracts that had blinded a young boy. (Their operating theatre is alarmingly ad hoc: two high-backed chairs pushed together with the boy wedged in between, anaesthetics not yet having been invented.)

Slicing eyes to restore vision was clearly a major imaginative spur for the curators, as it had been for 18th-century philosophers such as Locke, Diderot and Voltaire. The exhibition's accompanying booklet devotes an entire essay to the history of cataract removal, including the outrageous activities of itinerant quacks who travelled the world taking large fees for operations that didn't work. The composer J S Bach died after one such botched job. Eight years later, Handel submitted to the incompetent scalpel of the same man. In at least one sense, then, incising eyes to restore sight resulted in a lopping-off of genius.

There is more eyeball-slicing, for those who can take it, in Un chien andalou, the Surrealist silent film made in 1929 by Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel, which plays from a wall-mounted screen with irritatingly scratchy music on a loop (the climax to Wagner's Tristan particularly grating). It's the eye-slitting that's famous, but you'll find a crazy, sliced-in-two piano later in the film, if you hang on.

Sticking with anatomy, also on display is a 1920s tonsillectomy tool, apparently no more sophisticated than a set of toenail clippers; a 19th-century coloured wax model of part of an attractive female face, the scalp peeled from the skull to reveal the eyeball and the fleshy motorway network that sits behind it; and an MRI image of the artist Ai Weiwei's cerebral haemorrhage, the result of police brutality in China in August 2009. Here we have a slice of something – an inside view of a person's brain – with the power to change our perception of art and politics.

Among the more expected items with architectural connections are engravings of Parisian apartment blocks with the front wall removed to reveal the various human dramas on each floor; a fine tinted engraving of the Paris Métro, slicing through the camber of the street to show tunnels under construction below; a wide, back-lit colour photograph, by School of Architecture alumnus Kevin Sheppard, of the Association's handsome premises in Bedford Square, walls magically dissolved to show dingy service corridors, messy offices, smart reception areas, but not a human soul.

I said this exhibition was eclectic. So why not also an ant farm in a carved gilt frame? By trapping a layer of sand between sheet Perspex and a traditional painted landscape, two young Cornell graduates have re-imagined the childhood ant farm as a work of art, a showcase for the intricate excavations and elegant performance of tasks in an ant community. Unfortunately, at the time of my visit, most of the performers seemed to be asleep, perhaps in response to cold weather.

In general, it's the larger exhibits (like the 1960s shop bacon slicer) that have impact. Some are just too small. Given the restricted size of the gallery, it might have seemed a good idea to display lots of little bits on a giant lightbox, providing magnifiers. But these don't help enough. A section of petrified wood that looked like a doll's house piece of fillet steak still looks like fillet steak at double the size. This show is fascinating in its scope, inspiring in its scatter-shot thinking. But visit the optician before you go.

To 15 Dec (020-7887 4000). Entry free

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