Apollo Magazine

‘I am every conservator’s nightmare – that person who wants to touch the art’

Seeing art is often a purely visual experience, but we shouldn't be afraid of exploring our other senses in the gallery

Installation view of Untitled (Mylar) (2011) by Tara Donovan in ‘When Forms Come Alive’ at the Hayward Gallery, London, 2024. Photo: Jo Underhill; courtesy Hayward Gallery; © the artist

From the May 2024 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

As I wandered around ‘When Forms Come Alive’ at the Hayward Gallery in London, a burly man sidled up and asked me if I’d like to handle some Mylar. I was beside a Tara Donovan sculpture made from a thin, silvery material that had been curled and clustered into spheres, posed in a great bubbling pile like magnified bacteria. I assumed that the sheets were aluminium and that the sculpture would be cold and jagged to the touch. The invigilator corrected me; it was Mylar (the same light and pliable material from which Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds were made in 1966). He handed me a sheet.

I imagine that the invigilator had judged me liable to poke a finger into the sculpture’s recesses as soon as he looked away. He would have been right to. I am every conservator’s nightmare – that person who wants to touch the art. I long to glide my palm over curving marble, test the weight of small bronzes and fall into the soft embrace of tangled fibre. In a quiet gallery, unwatched, I once nestled my face into the tufted wool of a Sheila Hicks wall hanging and inhaled its maternal lanolin. When touring exhibitions with artists, I thrill, vicariously, as they rub at the surface of their own oil paintings with an enquiring thumb or caress carved plaster with the sensual entitlement of a latter-day Pygmalion.

As students of art history or curatorial practice we are invited to approach art with our intellect. We scrutinise, we ponder, we analyse, attending to questions of composition, influence and prevailing ideas. In the latter decades of the 20th century, art students, too, were taught to prioritise the conceptual over the perceptual. ‘The idea becomes a machine that makes the art,’ writes Sol LeWitt in Paragraphs on Conceptual Art (1967). ‘Conceptual art is made to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eye or emotions.’ A painter who attended art school in the 1990s recently told me that it had taken him almost 25 years to free himself of the indoctrinated belief that the primary driver for his work had to be conceptual. Painting is a bodily activity – one that comes with its own smellscape – and involves the hand as much as the eye. Even Titian used his fingers.

Installation view of The Holder of Wasp Venom (2023) by Marguerite Humeau in ‘When Forms Come Alive’ at the Hayward Gallery, London, 2024. Photo: Jo Underhill; courtesy Hayward Gallery; © the artist

Of course, for some artists the idea will come first. Nevertheless, it seems reductive to set the conceptual against the perceptual. Running the Mylar between my fingers as I walked around Donovan’s sculpture told me much about its weight, its potential for movement and the challenges she might have faced assembling it.

The warm scent of beeswax whispered from an adjacent gallery containing the works of Marguerite Humeau. As sculptures they are certainly conceptual – their materials include 4,500-year-old yeast, wasp venom and culture from the giant Termitomyces mushroom, none of which are readily apparent. Yet the works also communicate at a physical level. In scale they relate to a human body. The glass, wood and wax surfaces of the sculptures are inviting and relatable in texture. Above all, the smell of the beeswax conveys memories of ancient sweetness and home. Humeau is not alone in her interest in bees, yeasts and mycelium; many artists are fascinated by non-human intelligences. In its scent and tactility, her work also engages with other manifestations of human intelligence, including our sensory reading of the world.

Upstairs, another invigilator invited me to smell pots of cloves, turmeric and cumin – all spices used in a suspended fibre work by Ernesto Neto that suggested the depressed offspring of a macrame plant pot holder and a cephalopod. Freshly installed, it had perfumed the gallery. Some weeks later only the faint sweat of cumin remained. I sniffed the pots and eyed the sculpture’s pendulous golden lobes.

The urge to touch or smell art is not routinely accommodated in the gallery experience. The opportunity to handle objects might be offered during tours for the visually impaired, and sensory stimuli provided to children, but the rest of us are expected to get by on our eyes and ears alone. Intellectual engagement is prioritised over sensory engagement.

Installation view of Iaia Kui Dau Ara Naia (2021) by Ernesto Neto in ‘When Forms Come Alive’ at the Hayward Gallery, London, 2024. Photo: Jo Underhill; courtesy Hayward Gallery; © the artist

I visited ‘When Forms Come Alive’ during a few free hours on a difficult day. There were other shows I knew I should see, but those looked like heavy going: exhibitions appealing to the intellect. Academic and pedagogical. I needed art that spoke to me in a different way.

Earlier in the week, during a conversation on the future of museums, the director of a small regional gallery pointed out that public funding in the UK assesses most visual arts venues against the same set of criteria. This provokes hostility where there could be cooperation and apparently rewards homogeneity over eclecticism. Why not encourage arts organisations to pursue highly individual programming instead? This is a wonderful idea, but I imagine one major impediment is the perceived hierarchy that endures between programming that provokes the intellect (conceptual, academic, wordy) and that which reaches the senses (perceptual, tactile, olfactory).

Galleries are used in many ways – for research, social outings, education, comfort and stimulation. To encourage healthy diversity in our art ecosystem, all should be given equal weight: we need the capacity for highly academic exhibitions but also those that appeal to people on a more visceral level. Touch, too, is a route to knowing the world.

From the May 2024 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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