Skip to main content

Nervous system

by Vanessa Boni
Reviews / Exhibition • 17.05.2024

The Swedish painter Ulla Wiggen (b.1942) has built up a body of work based on an enduring fascination with biological and mechanical systems. This thematic exploration has unfolded across distinct phases in her artistic career, which began in the early 1960s and was interrupted by a hiatus lasting over three decades. Wiggen’s retrospective Outside / Inside at the Fridericianum, Kassel, brings together over sixty paintings and drawings. The works are divided into two main sections, reflecting the temporal rupture in her practice. The first features Wiggen’s early paintings, which depict the inner components of computers and the external surfaces of machinery. The second focuses on her turn in 1969 to traditional modes of human portraiture and her depictions of internal organs, made between 2013 and 2017. As is perhaps to be expected, the exhibition arrangement places emphasis on Wiggen’s artistic trajectory. Her intimately scaled paintings are generously spaced out, but in their intricacy manage to hold their own in the sizeable gallery space. 

When Wiggen paints, she does so obsessively, focusing her attention on one subject at a time. Although the themes that she addresses appear to vary across her practice, there remains a common thread: an exploration of the human mind. Wiggen’s portraits, for example, meticulously depict exterior features and expressions, while also probing the inner realms of their subjects. In Horisonten (Horizons) FIG.1, Wiggen’s portrait of her second husband, the art critic Peter Cornell, she positions him against a vast expanse of sea and sky, symbolising an external manifestation of psychological space. Similarly, her schematic depictions of computer hardware suggest a deeper enquiry into cerebral processes, rather than a mere fascination with electronics – a notion exemplified by the prevalent cybernetic metaphor of the 1960s that ‘humans are machines’.1 Cyberneticists sought to explore how machines could offer insights into the workings of the human brain, and the idea that electronic media had ‘become looped-in to our neural networks’ is one that Wiggen examines in her paintings.2 Her analytical attitude reflects both a curiosity and a pervasive sense of unease about the human body becoming increasingly intertwined with information circuits.

Wiggen’s schematic paintings were produced in an era distinguished by the convergence of cybernetics with the visual arts: artists became interested in information systems, computer networks and artificial intelligence, marking a shift from ‘an object-oriented to a systems-oriented society’.3 This is often associated with the writer and theorist of art and technology Jack Burnham, in particular his works on systems aesthetics. In 1968 two of Wiggen’s paintings – TRASK FIG.2, a portrait of the semi-conductor computer built at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, and Vägledare (Microcircuit; 1967) – were featured in the pivotal exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. Although they were exhibited as part of an emerging movement of computer-generated art, according to the art historian Ina Bloom, ‘there was, quite simply, nothing technical or cybernetic about them, at least not in Burnham’s sense of the term’.4

In this context, Wiggen’s paintings may have appeared somewhat out of place. Instead of employing technology as a medium, she generates technological imagery using paint. It is surely relevant too that these works are not representations of technological artefacts, but rather approximations of them. The artist deliberately chooses to forge intuitive associations that result in surreal imagery, therefore granting equal significance to the invisible processes of systems. In this sense, Wiggen’s visualisations of the internal attributes of computers can perhaps serve as a portal to a broader exploration of other kinds of enigmatic and inscrutable communication models and feedback loops. Her later focus on painting brains – for example, in Conscientia (Consciousness) FIG.3, Origo (Origin; 2013) and Golem I (2017) – further underscores this point.

The fusion of the corporeal with the technological is evident in Wiggen’s earliest works, such as Kretsfamilj (Circuit Family) FIG.4, Förutsättningar (Conditions; 1963) and Förstärkare (Amplifier; 1964). Wiggen renders entwined wires, coils, cables, nodes and circuit boards on a small scale in a flat, dense space, recalling the characteristic interlace of medieval Insular manuscripts. Using very fine brushes, she applied thick gouache to medical gauze, a material that imbues the paintings with bodily connotations. The dimensions of the works of art were constrained by the width of the gauze available in pharmacies. Although the incorporation of this material primarily served a practical purpose, it also points towards Wiggen’s evolving engagement with medical themes over the course of her career. Indeed, her shift to painting the inner workings of the human body can be understood as a natural progression from her computer interiors. As Cornell notes, ‘The soft organs create, just like the machines did, perfect cybernetic cycles: intestines, nerve fibres, blood vessels, brain and guts are all part of a connected communication system – as long as they are not afflicted by any external catastrophic disruptions’.5

In 1980 Ellen, Wiggen and Cornell’s daughter, tragically died at the age of eight due to illness. Wiggen ceased painting for over thirty years, apart from a few commissioned works and the cover for Cornell’s book Den hemliga källan: om initiationsmönster i konst, litteratur och politik (‘The secret source: on initiation patterns in art, literature and politics’; 1981). During this time, Wiggen pursued a career as a psychotherapist and, drawing on her artistic background, incorporated art therapy into her patients’ treatment. In 2013 Moderna Museet, Stockholm, staged Moment – Ulla Wiggen, an exhibition comprising thirty of her circuit paintings from 1964 to 1969. Encouraged by this and a number of group exhibitions that demonstrated an interest in artists’ early engagement with technology, she resumed her practice.

When Wiggen returned to painting, she again took up medical themes. This culminated in her Intra series (2013–15): small-scale works depicting organs, nerves, veins, cells and bones. For these, Wiggen studied anatomical books and illustrations at the Karolinska Institutet University Library, Stockholm. Yet, her images are more alchemical, emphasising transformation and healing, rather than being didactic. Although the organs are recognisable, they have an otherworldly quality – they drift amid cosmic space or are nestled within other body parts. In Sorores (Sisters) FIG.5, for example, a group of viscera, protected by the ribs and the spine, are crammed into the interior space of three teeth.

In The Face of the Mind FIG.6, a transverse section of a brain composed of delicate, branching cerebellar matter and egg-shaped forms emerge against a vibrant turquoise background. According to Theosophy, thoughts and emotions are energies that manifest in various colours; turquoise is held to reflect a connection with the divine realm.6 One could relate this colour choice with an articulation of Wiggen’s maternal grief and loss, imbuing her medical imagery with a heightened spiritual essence – one not observable in her earlier schematic paintings. If in the circuit paintings the technological corresponds with the bodily, in the Intra series, the bodily corresponds with celestial. But, despite this shift, there is nonetheless a discernible continuity with the artist’s previous enquiries into the interconnections and dysfunctions of the networks, systems and cyclical processes that have long preoccupied her.

In Inside / Outside, the first work that one encounters upon entering the exhibition is also the last FIG.7. The central chamber of the show, which is positioned in-between the two main sections, focuses exclusively on Wiggen’s most recent series: enlarged depictions of human irises on round-shaped panels FIG.8. The pupils, which are rendered in a deep matte black, resemble cosmic black holes. For the artist, the significance of the eyes lies in their capacity to serve as pathways to an inner realm. The series is a fitting way to begin and end this exhibition dedicated to Wiggen’s work: a passage from the outside in, towards the abyss of the psyche.


Exhibition details

Ulla Wiggen: Outside / Inside

Fridericianum, Kassel

24th February–28th July 2024

About the author

Vanessa Boni

is an independent curator and art historian based in Berlin. Her research examines mental illness and gender in modern and contemporary art with a focus on Surrealism and its legacies. Her research has been supported by the Association for Art History and the Berlin Senate Department of Culture, and her writing has appeared in various publications. Boni was formerly Curator at Spike Island, Bristol, where she realised solo exhibitions with Nina Beier and Mai Thu Perret. Her research on Veronica Ryan secured the 2018 Freelands Award, resulting in Along a Spectrum, which was awarded the Turner Prize in 2022. Boni has previously held curatorial positions at the Liverpool Biennial and Serpentine Galleries, London. 


  • M.A. Arbib: The Metaphorical Brain: An Introduction to Cybernetics as Artificial Intelligence and Brain Theory, New York 1972, p.5. footnote 1
  • M. Shamberg and Raindance Corporation: Guerrilla Television, New York 1971, p.1. footnote 2
  • M. Bijvoet: ‘Jack Burnham: the systems approach’, in idem: Art as inquiry: Toward New Collaborations Between Art, Science, and Technology, New York 1997, pp.67–74, at p.67. footnote 3
  • I. Bloom: ‘Closed circuit’, Artforum (November 2019), available at, accessed 14th May 2024. footnote 4
  • P. Cornell: Ulla Wiggen, Stockholm 2022, p.11. footnote 5
  • A. Besant and C.W. Leadbeater: Thought-Forms: A Record of Clairvoyant Investigation, New York 1905, p.33. footnote 6

See also

Life inside a system: eco-critical stances in the art of Luis Fernando Benedit, 1968–72
Life inside a system: eco-critical stances in the art of Luis Fernando Benedit, 1968–72

Life inside a system: eco-critical stances in the art of Luis Fernando Benedit, 1968–72

by Vanessa Badagliacca

Prunella Clough
Prunella Clough

Prunella Clough

28.06.2019 • Reviews / Exhibition