Archive for the 'gaze' Category

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.

Time (by Olga Norris)

Specifically, time in the visual arts.  At a concert, watching a film or other performance, or reading a book, I enjoy the unfolding, the development, the altering of perspective and increase in understanding – all of which continue beyond the end in a work of worth.  What about art on the wall?  Paintings can be big enough to encompass the whole wall, and can take time to complete the looking, but generally the fixed image has to contain something else to hold and impart time. 

 While at a jazz concert listening to a piece with a distinct journey, holding back and revealing, teasing and revealing, I thought how difficult it is for a maker of fixed images to convey such a journey to the observer.  I started thinking about it seriously after that, and managed to answer a question which I’d casually asked myself many years ago. 


 Why is it when visiting a new place, particularly a foreign place, that so many of us are drawn to decay?  It is not just the old ways of building that attract us, because reconstructions are not seen to be quite as alluring as decay.  What is it about the poor parts of a city that make them so much more attractive than the prosperous well-tended parts?  What makes them so artistically inspiring

 Is it time?  The passage of time is writ clearly upon the face of the building in its decay.  Do we need to see the marks of time to feel a kind of comfort?  Which thought brought me to looking at the marks made by thread on cloth.  In a very direct way this can be seen in the work of Matthew Harris, and anyone who is inspired by the urban archaeology of peeling posters. 

stitched textile by Matthew Harris


 The question of time also brought me to thinking about ‘the frozen moment’: the photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson being the ultimate example of this for me.  One of his genius abilities in my mind is that although he always seems to be there to capture the astonishing instant, he also does not detract  from or paralyse the action.  In that still we are given a glimpse into a continuum. 

 I realise that this is what I want from fixed images: that they should engage with both the concept of time and with my time.  I take as the ultimate example the magical image of Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void.  Having grasped the attention it immediately provokes the imagination to supply the continuum, it questions, it arouses curiosity, and is timeless.  I love it, and find that it leaps often from the void –or out of the blue – into my mind in conjunction with many different topics. 

 In my own work I suppose I try to capture an ambiguity or enigma which can change with viewings over time.  Although my own emotions are encompassed, I hope that they have been distilled and abstracted (aha! – see my last post here) enough to be more universal.  I aspire to the foothills of Edward Hopper in providing a work which is not-quite-completely-knowable, but which attracts and satisfies timeless curiosity.  It will take me some time to get there, but I hope to continue having fun on the way!

Reaction and/or judgement? (by Olga Norris)

Deep thought

I have recently made two visits to a solo exhibition of a celebrated textile artist – one whom I have admired for many years and whose work I have loved.  But on seeing the show my anticipated delight was abruptly turned to disappointment and doubt.

In this post I want to discuss my response and ask questions of others out there rather than to talk specifically about the work in question.  I want to think out loud about how we form our critical responses to work.  I want to find out how others deal with instant instinctive reactions, quietly considered judgements, and gradually – or even dramatically evolving opinions.

As I say, the artist is one whose work I have responded to positively for a long time, and that admiration has persisted throughout  my own education within the field.  I understand so much more about technique on many levels now, but this work has remained up there as excellent and inspiring.  I would place the artist up amongst the special few.

This exhibition contains one large piece in the familiar style, but also many illustrating a new approach.  I found those to be ‘too easy’, taking advantage of technique perhaps to speed up completion.  I found that they appeared deliberately commercial – meaning made to make more product from a ‘name’ – rather than speaking with an integrity of their own.  I find that they are not good work – and by that I mean so much more than just that I did not like them.

I was downcast and confused.  Because these days I am in a precarious emotional state personally I wondered whether my judgement had gone haywire.  Was I dismissing these works because they seemed rough, and different?  Was I unwilling to accept that the artist’s approach had changed?  Should an artist not be entitled to take advantage of esteem and ‘churn out’ a few lesser pieces (if they are indeed generally accepted as lesser) in order to make a living?

I felt that here was an area for further pondering.  I can make use of my few free hours to make the short journey to visit the show again and again to examine and re-examine my reactions.  On my second visit I noticed that all the smaller pieces I find attractive -‘acceptable’! – have been sold, but those which I find unresolved and unsatisfactory still unsold.  But is that just good old convention at work?  Is that simply the market asking for more of what it already has deemed acceptable – and thus makes it so difficult for anyone with a well defined style of work to change in any way?

I don’t think that I am stuck in my opinions, but then perhaps I wouldn’t.   I would like to read what others think about this general principle of an approach to work, and how one gauges whether a work is good even if one doesn’t like it – or obversely judges that a work is slight even if one likes it tremendously.  Do changing tastes affect the integral quality of  work?

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