Nina Sellars

scan_03Nina Sellars, Scan

Scan is a mixed reality interactive piece that utilizes smart phone technology. The work consists of two elements: a graphic wall image that is presented in the gallery space and an online auto-play animation. The wall image contains an encoded body of information in the graphic form of a QR (quick response) code, which can be decoded by using a QR reader on a smart phone.  The code links to, and activates, the online animation, which comprises MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans of a brain.1 The images used in Scan show the artist’s brain after surgical treatment for a brain tumour that left her blind for a period of eighteen months. The wall image is derived from an MRI scan taken from the animation. The scan, which shows a transverse cross-section of the artist’s head, forms the beginning and end of the cyclic auto-play animation. The sequence of scans takes the viewer from the middle of the brain up to the top, then down to the base of the spine and up again to pause briefly at eye level, before repeating. However, the brain itself has been removed in the wall graphic and replaced with the QR code: only the eyes and the outline of the skull from the original scan remain visible.


Nina Sellars, Scan

In the process, the brain has been encoded and decoded. Made visible through multiple acts of mediation, it has not only been dematerialized but also mobilized, i.e. transported from the physical space of the body to its liminal position in an art gallery. The animation of the brain, which exists in the virtual space of the Internet, can then be dispersed into the personal space of real world gallery visitors via their smart phones. The act of scanning the image enables viewers to leave the exhibition with a small brain playing in the palm of their hand. In this way, Scan functions as a poetic questioning of the possible interactions that may occur when radiological visualizations of the body escape the confines of their scientific context.

A planar cross-sectional scan of the body can appear to an untrained eye as simply an abstract image. It seems dislocated not just from a fleshy and thus representational body, but also, when viewed outside of the medical context, from the body of knowledge which is required for its understanding. What is therefore being seen and not seen by a lay person’s eye when it views this unfamiliar image of the body? The answer to this question lies in part with the latent animation that is embedded in the scans, which evokes a living body that is visualized as part of a diagnosis. In other words, to decode a scan one must understand the initial process of its encoding. The latter is not exclusively based on technological operations but is rather combined with an accumulation of information and understanding gained from the auscultation, palpation and percussion of a living body, i.e., from the diagnostic listening to the patient’s body.


Nina Sellars, Scan (graphic wall image) laser cut adhesive-backed matte vinyl film (red and black) placed directly onto white gallery wall; image size: 140cm x 97.5cm; installation shot from the Wellcome Trust’s Brains show, 2012

In order to encode and decode meanings in medical images one needs to engage fully on a sensory level with a living anatomical body but also to combine these observations with theoretical medical knowledge. To an untrained eye, a seemingly abstract medical scan merely announces the presence of a body, with the scan accepted as a signifier of the body – which has been mediated by technology. In Scan MRI images in their role of signifiers of a medicalized body have been reappropriated and reanimated in a way that makes any straightforward diagnosis impossible. In this way, Scan becomes an exploration of the phenomenological experience of being both embodied and embedded in a (mediated) world.  We encounter here the Heideggerian sense of being-in-the-world, that is being literally thrown into a process of making sense of the world – which begins with being perplexed by our own existence. This awareness is partly discursive. It unfolds through questioning how the world comes into view for us as being meaningfully present, with meaning residing not in things or in perceptions but rather in our actions.

There is choreography to viewing art, which actively engages the viewer in what art historian Ernst Gombrich referred to as the ‘beholder’s share’, given that ‘the mind of the beholder has its share in the imitation’. Here, the artwork forms a link between the imagination of both the artist and the viewer. Gombrich describes the elegance of this exchange as the sprezzatura of a heightened imagination.  In his oft-cited text, Art and Illusion, he discusses the notion of sprezzatura by quoting from the sixteenth century guide to social graces, The Book of the Courtier, by Baldassare Castiglione:

The true artist, like the true gentleman, will work with ease.  This is Castiglione’s famous doctrine of sprezzatura, the nonchalance which marks the perfect courtier and the perfect artist.  ‘One single unlaboured line, a single brushstroke, drawn with ease so that it seems that the hand moved without any effort or skill and reached its end all by itself, just as the painter intended….’  It is an art in which the [artist’s] skill in suggesting must be matched by the public’s skill in taking hints. [However], the literal-minded… [are] excluded from this closed circle. (Gombrich, 1960: 163-165)

The beholder’s share in a digital world is the sprezzatura of the smart phone. It is the nonchalant ease with which a person connects to the Internet, allowing him or her to move effortlessly through augmented and mixed reality. An individual’s mastery of the visual encoding of their environment enables him or her to exist simultaneously in real and virtual environs, and to do so with ease. In this way Scan can be described as ‘an art in which the [artist’s] skill in suggesting must be matched by the public’s skill in taking hints’, with both parties required to be ‘in the know’ with technology.


1. QR (Quick Response) codes are matrix codes that function as physical hyperlinks, i.e. they normally appear as ‘real’ images that when scanned, using the appropriate technology and software, provide access to the Internet and form a direct link to a selected online site.  Free QR scanner software and additional information about QR codes are available from or for iPhone users QR readers are available from the App store.


Gombrich, Ernst H. (1960) Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Nina Sellars is an Australian artist working in mixed media. Currently holding an adjunct position in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology at Monash University, she regularly lectures in anatomy for artists and is also a trained prosector, i.e. a dissector of cadavers for medical display. Her artwork hybridizes the disciplines of art, science and humanities, and focuses on the way anatomy has shaped our understanding of the body, identity and subjectivity over the centuries. Her interest in anatomy has taken her from wet anatomy labs to physics labs, where she is exploring the cultural implications of modern medical imaging. Classically trained in drawing, Sellars is now working on a series of multimedia installations involving anatomy and light. She is represented by the GV Art gallery in London.

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