If … I had to choose between being blind and having my hands cut off, I’d choose blindness.
While studying philosophy and arts in college, I got preoccupied with the limits of sensory perception and in how the senses lead to different encounters of the world. I wondered why sight and sound are the main medium of art and aesthetic consideration. Could we walk into a dark gallery and by feeling objects on a wall encounter something akin to a story or a narrative? Can we adapt a symphony or a short story for the somatic perception, the way we adapt a novel to a film? I felt like I had discovered something new and in my art projects hopelessly looked for a vocabulary and grammar for touch. Can the combination of solidity, temperature, pressure, and form of objects with their various characteristics such as smooth, abrasive, prickly, raspy, cold, hot, hard, soft, sharp, sticky, rough, wet, and quivering become like music notes or brushstrokes?
Touch is the most intimate and pervasive of the senses. Diane Ackerman in A Natural History of the Senses writes that “touch is the first sense to develop.” We also “call our emotions feelings.” Touch is not just about our hands. It is the site where the world and we meet. How can we produce enough distance for a system of signs beyond simple pleasure — a system that can deliver complex cognitive and profound aesthetic experiences? Can we interpret tactile sensations as symbols and signs? Ackerman points out, “Touch is a sensory system, the influence of which is hard to isolate or eliminate. Scientists can study people who are blind to learn more about vision, and people who are deaf or anosmic to learn more about hearing or smell, but this is virtually impossible to do with touch.”
In my December trip to Texas, I saw two exhibitions where artists used touch and frottage. Isa Genzken’s Basic Research paintings from 1988 to 1991 are part of a major retrospective that began its tour at Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and is closing in Dallas Museum of Art on Jan 4, 2014. Genzken produces the works by using a squeegee (similar to her former husband Gerhard Richter) on a wet canvas placed on the floor of her studio. The oil paint captures the rich texture of the concrete surface, resulting in what looks like detailed abstract photographs. When I first saw these works, I didn’t realize that they were paintings.
Do Ho Suh, like Genzken, explores his own physical space and its everyday objects. But while Genzken’s work constantly changes while breaking boundaries such as high and low art, Suh’s work is more focused on remembrance and the forces of identity and displacement. At The Contemporary Austin, Suh includes a series of short videos from his Rubbing/Loving Projects, where using tracing paper, he rubbed with colored pencils the surface of different spaces, e.g., his New York apartment and a dormitory room at Gwangju Catholic University Lifelong Institute in South Korea. The result captures every detail, mark, and crevice — including the appliances and fixtures, such as switches and plugs or sinks and toilets. There is also a play with words here. Koreans have a difficulty differentiating between the sound of “l” and “r” or “b” and “v.” Thus “rubbing” turns into a form of “loving.”
The works of Suh and Genzken remind me of other earlier artworks such as Yves Klein’s Anthropométries. Klein had naked female models use their body as “living paintbrushes.” As part of a spectacle, he covered the bodies with “International Klein Blue” paint and had them make imprints on paper by touching and rubbing.
Works like Genzken, Suh, and Klein record the tactile encounter — the contact of bodies and objects. They live as the imprint of surfaces or skins. But the results remain untouchable. As with most works in museums, they are kept at a distance and are to be experienced via sight.
Historically, art objects and in particular sculptures were handled freely by the owners and their friends and guests. Johann Gottfried Herder in his 1778 book Plastik (Sculpture: Some Observations on Shape and Form from Pygmalion’s Creative Dream) even argues that sculptures are meant to be experienced by touch — only through touch can we discover the three-dimensional form with its mass, weight, volume, and solidity. Yet modern museums, because of the risk in handling or the damage of the harmful oils from our hands, forbid any touching of art. Only certain contemporary works or specific outdoor public sculptures are accessible to our tactile perception.
Sculptors may reproduce the appearance of objects being ravaged by touch or decay. Some artists even embrace decay. For example, Zoe Leonard with Strange Fruit (for David) includes living fruits that are slowly decomposing or Sigmar Polke with Watchtower II produces a painting that is slowly darkening due to the effect of light on silver oxide. But can the effect of the human touch and its consequence become an acceptable part of the experience of the art? Though I have not come upon such a work, I can imagine a sculpture that is meant to slowly age and transform by the human contact. Touch is unique because it changes both the objects and us.
Museums, using various precautions like gloves, have slowly reintroduced the tactile experience for the blind and partially sighted. Institutions such as MoMA have special touch tours. Some even have special galleries, such as the newly opened Elizabeth Morse Touch Gallery at Art Institute of Chicago. And recent books like Sculpture and Touch again explore the importance of the tactile experience of art.
In considering the tactile perception, two different possibilities provide the range of what has been explored. Braille characters, first developed by Louise Braille in 1824, are an example of tactile signs. They allow one to read by distinguishing textures of groups of raised dots. Like in magazines, Braille words can live alongside tactile forms that reproduce shapes, images, and drawings. One can also imagine experimentation with Braille along the line of concrete poetry where the characters and words use the field of the page for unique effects. And the dots can carry additional meaning. For example, a higher raised or a sharper dot can imply a particular emphasis. But Braille is not a new language or art medium. Braille gives us the equivalence of an already existing alphabet and language. It is another way of writing and reading — a way of exposing the alphabet for touch.
A different tactile experience can be found in places like San Francisco Exploratorium. The Tactile Dome was the creation of August Coppola, father of the actor Nicolas Cage and brother of film director Francis Ford Coppola. I first visited it in the 80s. The Dome was originally built in 1971 and in 2013 was updated for the Exploratorium’s new space.
Tactile Dome provides an opportunity for people to explore the possibilities of somatic perception. You enter a space in total darkness and feel your way through different rooms. The 1971 press release said, “feel, bump, slide and crawl through and past hundreds of materials and shapes which blend, change and contrast.” Your hands become the eyes and you only have the sense of touch to find your way out.
Coppola’s tactile maze provides a rich and unique sensory encounter. But it is purely experiential, more like an amusement park ride. It does not turn the different sensations into a language that can supply a narrative or a new cognitive or aesthetic experience.
It has been years since I toyed with making tactile art objects. But I still want to walk into a touch gallery one day and learn to experience art in a new way. I hope artists take up this challenge and have tactile sensations become what C.S. Pierce defines as the different types of signs: icons, indexes, and symbols. There is so little of the possibility of the senses that we have explored — so many ways to help our imagination and to experience our everyday world anew.