In touch with our senses? (by Olga Norris)

Our visual sense is so dominant, and so important to a majority of us that when we think of art we automatically think of visual art.  Indeed most of our art presents itself to our eyes, and apart from music it is difficult to think of art which is designed to be appreciated by the other senses.  For instance, the art of cookery is rarely taken seriously as a ‘true’ or ‘fine’ artform, but rather an elevated skill – although when I was at university I knew someone who had received an Arts Council grant to make an edible exhibition – which we ate.

I was recently at a festival of music and found myself thinking about how much more I derive from the music when my eyes are closed.  There is then nothing visual to interfere with my hearing and thinking.  This led me to think about the other senses which we perhaps under use despite their being so powerfully evocative.  After all did not Marcel Proust write a multi volume classic spurred by the smell and taste of a small cake?  (I believe that smell goes straight to the limbic system which is the area which controls memories and emotions.)

I work with fabric, so I want to concentrate on touch.

Touch is important – indeed it is vital for our emotional development.  Those of us who work with fibre, textiles, wood, clay, plaster, etc. all know how important the feel of our materials at various stages of our work  is vital to the satisfaction we derive from making that work.  Those sensations of touch are what make us work that way,  but we sublimate that essential tactile quality in order to present the finished work to the eyes of the audience.  Exhibitions are to be seen, not touched – exhibits to be looked at, not felt, until purchase at least.  But we can therefore never wholly transmit the total work to those who observe – they can never participate in that haptic experience.

In working with fabric there is a kind of teasing going on in that we want the audience to want to feel the work, but not actually to do so.  Quiltmaker Elisabeth Brimelow has stated about her work in a recent book: ‘I hardly ever cover my work with glass, even the small pieces.  The secret with textiles is that the viewer should want to touch and feel, and glass creates a barrier.’

I believe this desire to touch and the inability to do so is particularly a deprivation where art quilts are concerned.  These objects began life as warmers, comforters, and yet so many of us strive to elevate them to the status of art by making them wholly visual.  Success visually seems to be the main criterion for art success.  Our competitive entry systems for exhibitions have further channelled that visual appeal to work within seconds – evoking a slow-burning reaction is likely to gather more rejections from juried shows.  Instant appeal wins out.

I am guilty of enjoying the touch of the making, but aiming for a visual end.  Although my initial artistic ambitions were in the medium of acrylics, I admit that I ultimately chose fabric rather than paint partly because I love to have something to pass through my hands – to feel the different materials, the prick of the needle, the pull of the thread, feeling the altered topography of a surface as I progress.  I am also sad that I and others cannot put out a hand to feel those quilts that hang enticing me so at exhibitions.  Of course I understand that damage can be done, but still, wouldn’t it be wondrous if some artists made work specifically to be touched as well as seen?  I don’t mean just little samples – although I do wish that more exhibitions made them available to handle – I mean whole pieces of work that are meant to be experienced through touch, not solely through our eyes – and that these pieces could also be called art, or even an art experience, and that they were not simply devised for those with visual impairment.  Or perhaps is it that the wanting to touch but not being able to – the sublimation of the desire, is part of the intellectual sophistication needed to appreciate art?

Perhaps art to wear comes closest to being an art for tactile experience – although perhaps that again is really a collaboration with the intention of the art being seen.  But then when I thought of artists who might have wanted to engage viewers’ other senses I immediately recalled Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece involves cutting her clothes off.  It had to do with other motives, but the participants had to grasp Ono’s clothing, and feel the hard steel of the scissors.  A Place Called Space blog  has an excellent overview of a Yoko Ono retrospective, and has also mentioned the new work Moving Mountains which involves visitors getting into cloth bags to move on the floor as living sculptures.



Tereza Stehlikova :  initiated the setting up of Sensory Sites, a collective of artists committed to creating multisensory work.   Looking at one of the artists in the collective: Bonnie Kemske :  (pictures of work above) I thought how wonderful it would be if we could make textile work which was experienced by visitors – and not necessarily by dancers, like these sculptures:  I suspect, however that most of the art resulting from the research still is largely visual and or intellectual.  In the Tactile Workshops video on Tereza Stehlikova’s site, it is the art students who experience the tactile experiments, and they progress then to reproduce their reactions in work to be seen.

Perhaps the senses of seeing and hearing are simply so particularly important to us, so intellectually qualitatively different from those of touch, taste, and smell that the rewards for seeing and hearing works are valuable beyond the rewards from engagement with the other senses.  But wouldn’t it be good to have a little more variety?

On the other hand it seems that increasingly more folks want to make things: crafts of all kinds are on the up with the young as well as with the retired.  This is true in the broad range of embroidery and quilting, as well as there seeming to be a potter round every corner these days.  Is this perhaps because our current life of mass market affordable commodities removes all need to make anything we can so cheaply buy.  Thus in our largely non-salary-earning time we now devote ourselves to becoming makers who get that full haptic satisfaction: the full experience of the touching at every stage. Yet then in order to measure our success the finished work is set up for competition in the now inevitably overcrowded arena of visual judging.

7 Responses to “In touch with our senses? (by Olga Norris)”

  1. 1 karenmusgrave2013 December 22, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    I apologize for not posting sooner but I was trying to remember an artist’s name. Quilt artist Adriene Cruz believes that her quilt art needs to involve sight, touch and smell. She actually wants people to touch and smell her quilts. She often puts pouches of herbs like sage into her quilts. She also encourages people to touch even when the venues have signings says to not touch the artwork. I love the idea of sight, touch and smell being part of the experience.

  2. 3 olganorris December 19, 2013 at 2:46 am

    Eirene, I think that our visual sense is the one that has developed to be closest to our brain in decision-making – but so many of us still need input through our other senses, I believe. Just think about how supermarkets blast wafts of bread smells as we enter!
    Like you, I love putting out a hand to touch sculptures that are outdoors, and I so love the different feel of everything in life. I hardly ever wear gloves when gardening, washing up, printmaking, etc. Smells too are so important. I suspect that the main difference between the two groups of senses, sight and hearing on the one hand and touch, taste, and smell on the other, is that the first two are more intellectually connected, and the second three are more emotionally connected. Not exclusively so, but in general.
    I have not read anything on the subject, but have found it interesting to think about.

  3. 4 olganorris December 12, 2013 at 4:00 am

    This morning I was reading the November issue of Sculpture magazine, and came across an example of a (textile) artist who made a wondrous performance installation work which engages sight, touch, and hearing: Ann Hamilton’s the event of a thread which was shown, staged, participated in at Park Avenue Armory in New York. Her website has much on this work:

  4. 5 olganorris December 10, 2013 at 5:32 am

    Kay, handling dolls must be a lovely way to encounter all sorts of fabrics. I sometimes wonder why older people cannot be given dolls to handle. It is a shame, however, that once again the adjective ‘art’ means look, don’t touch!

  5. 6 Kay Warner December 8, 2013 at 8:08 am

    Olga, this is such an interesting topic. I am a doll-making embroiderer. Many of my art dolls are very textured and tactile. I love the feel of the fibres whilst I am making them, they are quite robust and I hope that other people like to touch them too. However, many art dolls are designed to be looked at and exhibited – touching would spoil them. I have introduced Ragged Cloth Cafe to the Art Dolls Only Members facebook page. I think this topic is something art doll makers should be interested in.

    • 7 Eirene Mitsos December 18, 2013 at 11:09 am

      A thought-provoking post, Olga. The emphasis on the visual, on ‘seeing’ is something that permeates our culture way beyond art, I think, and our other senses have atrophied as a result. A real shame, so I’m glad that you have articulated this. I always want to touch sculptures, Henry Moore’s work comes to mind – impossible to resist feeling the smoothness of the bronze when visiting Yorkshire Sculpture Park: I always feel that since these sculptures are exposed to the elements, a caress from me is not going to do any damage.

      I think that there are also gender issues here – women are much more tactile, and much more aware of all five senses. Textile art is made predominantly by women and the fact that it’s not as recognised as (solely) visual art is an indication of the issues you have explored, as well as the fact that it’s men who dominate our conception of what constitutes ‘high’ art. These issues need further exploration.

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