There was a clatter of glass on wood. I automatically reached out to help the woman next to me, finding and righting the corked bottle of wine I sensed had fallen in my direction, while simultaneously telling her what I was doing. Task achieved, and without either of us asking permission, we instinctively sought out each other’s hand and squeezed reassuringly, an acknowledgement of a gesture made and received.
I’m a tactile person, perhaps as a result of being a youngest child and benefitting from being played with and cuddled by three older siblings in addition to my parents in my early years. Physical touch is a natural language for me. Finding myself in the total darkness of Dans Le Noir, the sensory restaurant that fully lives up to its name, this means of communicating was acutely accentuated, a faculty to fall back on in the absence of sight.
The restaurant has shared tables meaning the likelihood (a risk or opportunity?) of encounter with strangers via knocked over tableware is high. An evening there is accented by the metallic clangs of fallen cutlery and peppered by exclaims as diners inexpertly navigate new terrain. As a sighted person it serves to throw into sharp relief, a phrase somewhat ironic under the circumstances, how much you rely on and take for granted the visual until this sense is abruptly cut off.
And I mean abruptly. The transition from a lit landing to the enveloping blackness within the dining area is brutally brief. The host you follow inside, in the manner of a meek conga line, becomes a disembodied voice hovering above your table as you sit. I imagined a head floating without a body attached as if I was up close and personal with the protagonists of a Samuel Beckett play. It’s not what you usually experience over a three-course meal.
I could go on at length. There are many more details of the experience I found fascinating, surprising, beguiling and occasionally unnerving, even irritating. But what I want to do is pay homage to the concept for what I took away with me, which was to consider (I just very nearly used the words ‘look at’ without thinking) the world around me in a different way, in particular in the context of my work in an art gallery.
At ArtÓ we’ve always encouraged people to have more than a cursory glance. Our ‘owned not loaned’ ethos means our featured artists are supported financially upfront so that they can carry on their practice. The result is a slowing down of the art appreciation journey which we augment through our ‘cabinet of curiosities’ (two cabinets in fact). Visitors are actively encouraged to open them and examine the contents.
I’m not sure it’s entirely normal for an art gallery (and that’s more than fine with us) but at ArtÓ you can try on a pair of studded Ed Hardy shoes, attempt to wrap your fingers around a now laughably sizeable immaculate original 1990s 8800X Motorola phone, thumb the handsewn spine of a comic by illustrator Martyna Sabadasz or compare the weight of artist’s proofs of medals for the Tokyo Olympics in your palms.
Many of our original artworks, particularly mixed media, oils exposed to heat and layered acrylics, as well as hand-embellished, limited-edition prints, deliberately presented unframed or without glass, all have a depth of texture in their composition that lend themselves to being touched. But it’s more than that, they actually prompt an urge to reach out and physically feel the artworks. So why, as a general rule, don’t we?
Is it a form of reverence or just social convention that means we stand back and gaze more readily than engaging in a tactile experience with art. Sculpture gives us greater licence for fleshly exploration, and bronzes by Jenny Nijenhuis, carbon fibre pieces by Alastair Gibson, BE@RBRICK plastic sculptures from Japanese label MediCom Toy and a 1993 aluminium and steel jigsaw mannequin by Nigel Coates at ArtÓ reward the adventurous in this respect, but habit may still deter more than the most delicate and token of grazes. For the sighted person the choice between the hands on and purely visual approach is always there.
It strikes me as odd in many ways that artworks that have been created by bodies are not always felt by them. The artist’s dexterity, their chosen tools and the physical rigours of their medium are an intrinsic part of the creative process not immediately apparent or absorbed in the end result. Perhaps touch, enthusiastically but sensitively and respectfully applied, is a way of reconnecting and closing the loop between maker and appreciator.
‘The more people that interact with a piece of art the better’ advocates William Thomas, whose painting ‘Elephant in the Room’ at ArtÓ, composed of acrylic mixed with sculpting paste to create the effect of the wrinkled skin synonymous with the majestic mammal, is a perfect example of an artwork that extends beyond the visual. ‘I created a painting of St. Petersburg for a friend’s wife who is partially sighted. I sculpted it almost, so you could feel the city, all the bridges. It’s the same for the Elephant in the Room.’
‘Once you finish a piece of artwork it stops being yours,’ believes Thomas. ‘Every mark someone makes on a piece adds to its provenance, its story. It’s one of the great and tangible joys of public art or galleries which encourage visitors with a ‘please touch’ sign. To be able to add to this dynamic through my own artworks brings me great pleasure.’