On Touch
(or the impossibility of touch)

A few weeks ago a deadly virus spread across the world, forcing governments to come up with drastic measures to counter the contagion. At this time, the most effective course of action has had to do with physical distancing between people, but also the warning to not touch any surfaces which other people might have been in contact with. This strict ban on social closeness and physical touch entails a particular sense of isolation, an unprecedented re-invention of how we should all relate to our surroundings. The process of assimilation of this new world – not just because of the current situation but also because of it’s inevitable consequences – prompted me to think about the importance of touch, especially in the light of it’s absence due to compulsory restriction.

Photography is key when thinking about absence, especially when it relates to senses other than the visual. Photographic images are intrinsically connected to haptic memories, because they establish such a direct connection with our bodies and sensory impressions of the world. The photographic medium is not only an extension of vision, but also touch and as such is a very powerful tool to examine these senses and their effects on memory and emotions.

I selected a series of works by artists using photography to explore this idea of touch/impossibility of touch, for a type of online exhibition, existing originally only on social media platforms. A secondary effect of the isolation measures taken across the world is a return to web-based spaces for exhibition, communication and creative collaboration. The list of artists is as follows:

Joanna Piotrowska
Sanne Van den Elzen
Emma Bäcklund
Joshua Bilton
Mia Dudek
Tom Lovelace
Jo Longhurst
Victoria Louise Doyle
Alexandre Furcolin Filho

I worked with each of these artists -from our different pre-emptive home isolations- to select and discuss a work of theirs in light of the current ubiquity of physical distance. These past few weeks have made our confined environments a type of laboratory of the body, testing its boundaries and redefining the parameters and of rules of its social interaction.

Known for her powerful visual studies of the body as a vehicle for the expression of emotion, Joanna Piotrowska was one of the first names that came to mind when I thought about the idea of touch/the impossibility of touch. The piece she sent me Untitled, 2015 (below) is perhaps the best to start this examination of human touch in the context of the enforced mass isolation of these past few weeks.

Joanna Piotrowska, Untitled, 2015. 16mm film, duration:2:57. 

Piotrowska explains the context of this piece: “The video shows two hands of the same person touching one another. In some therapies, particular body movements and actions are assigned to help in dealing with psychological issues. In psychology, ones own touch is seen as comforting as someone else’s touch, so it is often recommended for those feeling anxious and lonely.”

The film shows what seems like a woman’s hands. The left is still; we only see the hand and part of the forearm resting on a dark surface. The right slowly moves in and out of the frame, touching and caressing the other hand. I was mesmerised by this repetitive operation, and how through the agency of film it is not the hands but the movements -delicate yet powerful- that leave an indelible impression.

Piotrowska’s work is an invitation to think about the effects of distancing and isolation, and how one’s own touch comes as solace, “as comforting as someone else’s touch”. For me this work is also about how an image of an act can trigger emotions and tactile memories more effectively than the act itself. It is about the choice of film, projection speed, and the fact the piece is silent. And more importantly, this piece is about how one can feel a sense of alleviation from watching the film, as effective and present as physical touch.

Sanne Van den Elzen‘s Today, too, I experienced something I hope to understand in a few days is the work that most aptly comments on the recent social distancing measures, and how they have prompted people to think about body language and non-contact interactions. The image at hand is part of a book, exploring the formality of ‘the greeting’ and how it is affected by changes in cultural conventions. Van den Elzen explores people’s comfort zones, and the politics of handshakes, kisses and embraces. Her photographic sequences act as a manual for non-verbal communication, in an attempt to highlight the nuances of the different cultural codes around this brief moment of physical interaction.

The image that accompanies van den Elzen’s book shows a fragment of a greeting. Hands and arms are positioned to touch and hold a particular position for a fleeting moment. The image evidences this cultural construction, and opens the conversation to examine the rules and roles of non-verbal communication. What if the hand doesn’t go where it is expected, what if it holds on for too long? It is interesting to think this work as both performative and photographic. The performance re-enacts the convened social scripts while photography dissects and examines them.

Van den Elzen’s visual research focuses on the “intervals and the interspaces of the visual choreography that is the art of the gesture”. This work is strangely ominous and acquires new relevance under the current state of lockdown. Instructions for social distancing have people across the world rethinking and coming up with new non-verbal greeting conventions. It is the absence of touch that is interesting to me. Perhaps we’ll learn from oriental traditions, and bow at safe distance. Or come up with some new physical gestures to communicate not just a friendly greeting, but more complex emotions.

Over the last few weeks of home isolation I have become fixated with the two-way reciprocal connection between visual image and body, a type of proprioception through photographic devices. Thinking about touch (or the impossibility of touch) Emma Bäcklunds Headrest invites multiple readings. One -the most evident connection between body and photographic image- is to see it as a sculptural object. A more symbolic reading, is to see it as an expressive performative event.

Different from other forms of representation, photography has a unique way of connecting to physical sensations and memories. This makes certain photographic images distinctively sculptural. In this case the photographic image conveys the weight, but also the fragility of the central object. The ovoid mass, in its sculptural simplicity, has the draw of a precious stone. Even when one recognises the shape of a cranium, the unusual angle and setting emphasise its sculptural qualities.

This reading underlies a second, more nuanced interpretation of the image. In this case I immediately note it is a woman who holds a man’s head. Cradle and cushion against the hard surface of the table. Suddenly the weight of the head is also the weight of the man, the weight of his existence surrendered. And this is when thinking about touch becomes imbued with a sense of comfort, although for me there is also an element of forbearance.

I’ve looked a lot at this image over these past lockdown weeks. It definitely has gained a new meaning in the context of this global crisis. Maybe it has to do with a generalised state of exhaustion. And playing back on this image’s title, the need for rest. The idea of touch as protection. A state of surrender and solace.

Clay cast of two hands touching by Joshua Bilton is another example of how layers of representation and interpretation build meaning. The clay cast in the image is a direct reproduction of two hands; the creases and folds on the material are evidence of their contact. But then the photograph of this unusual object – a second layer of representation – frees it from its original reference, and for me its message becomes the absence of the hands and the fleetingness of their contact.

I read it as an image of an absence, an attempt to preserve an instant that is no more. Both the cast and the photograph capture a void, but it is certainly the latter that makes it evident. Bilton elaborates this thought by talking about his work and notions of loss. “It is a continuation into processing concepts of loss, emptiness, mutability and endings. I am particularly interested in my own inability to fully understand endings and I seem to reflect backwards and forwards in time to things I’ve lost and fear losing. These photographs that encompass walking, impressions and casting both in the form of light and clay are a witness to the material traces of the bodies closest and furthest from me.”

Thinking about touch -especially in the context of the current situation- this work reminds me of an abstract type of absence, perhaps not actually of physical touch, but of an emotional contact with another person.

Bilton’s image also prompts me to think about the futility of our attempts to hold on to memories, recreating them in the hope of extending or reliving associated emotions. This discussion inevitably points back to photography and its connection to memory. But it is the intermediacy of the clay object that disrupts an otherwise conventional reference, creating a more obscure take on the subject. The way the cast is lit, and how it stands on a pedestal against a dark background make it seem like a monument of sorts. It is also the monochrome image that imbues it with a type of solemnity.

I’d like to connect this image with Mia Dudek‘s Casing III (Skin Studies) as this work is also imbued with a particular physicality I associate with sculpture. Photography not only translates volumes and surfaces, but it also gives us an abstract notion of weight, and in this instance also a feeling of containment and compression. This is one of Dudek’s main interests, “thinking of ourselves being repressed by our bodies, and our bodies being repressed and contained by the physical world”.

The surface on this photographic image can be read as skin, or as stone. Its delicate transparency hints to the former, but the tone and saturation of the image provides for an ambivalent interpretation. But yet again is the agency of touch that conveys a force, both on the body but also against the abstract claustrophobia of the photographic frame. One possible reading is to see the hands and fingers grasping the knees in an attempt to separate them, but also to counteract the pressure excreted by the boundaries of the image.

In between hands, knees and shins there is a vacuum, a dark space in the photographic print. It is the revealing of this void where the image becomes really powerful. It speaks of an essential separation, a tearing apart by means of force. Here touch and separation are also balanced by a sense of fragility. And this is what makes this image so relevant for me, in light of isolation at an intimate scale. It is touch, defined also by fragility and exposure.

Tom Lovelace‘s Drift reflects on the importance of the physicality of a work of art, and the personal relationships we can establish with it through senses beyond the visual. These last few weeks of screen overexposure have prompted me to think about the significance of materiality, and especially of a direct physical connection to the world. I think I am (like many of us) barely coping with the torrent of screen images competing for a fleeting moment of attention. It is then, at the edge of visual overload, when we most need to engage with other senses and temporalities.

Lovelace describes the work as a collage costume, firstly an object – two golden photograms which hang side by side in a gallery space- but also a performance piece involving the artist, invited performers and gallery audience: “It was a one of a set of key works that I staged last year that really started to test the material of photography in real time, with live bodies in exhibitions. The work consisted firstly of a two-piece collage, rooted in abstract gold. The work hung on the wall, like any other artwork, yet significantly, during the exhibition, performers would take the work off the wall and then respond, in a very spontaneous manner.”

His instruction to the guest performers and also to the audience visiting the gallery was as follows: Imagine you walked into your favourite museum or gallery and as you approach an artwork hanging on the wall, the invigilator tells you that you can take the work from and spend some time with it.

These ‘interactions’ both planned and sporadic, happened over the period of several days. Aside from specific responses, it is the premise of the work that is of lasting importance. The instruction from the artist lifts the invisible barrier between audience and work, not only allowing for it to be touched, but also actively manipulated. The foreign body of the audience becomes part of (if not centre of) the work for the duration of the interaction. The relationship between audience and work ceases to be passive. The body finds it’s extension through the work, and the latter is transformed by the agency of the audience’s movement, gravity and touch.

Although I’d freeze up if prompted to take the work off from the wall and react to it at will, I found it exciting to look at how other people interacted with the piece. Lovelace recorded some of the guest performers and collated sequences of their movements, adding content and meaning, and most importantly creating a legacy for the work. It has been interesting to move away from the notion of a single image, and explore works where performance either imbues the work with meaning, or extends its expressive capacity.

On a similar line, the performance What is to be done? part of Jo Longhurst‘s project entitled Other Spaces further develops this particular connection between the body as instrument for expression, and also its relationship with photography. Other Spaces is an investigation of the idea of perfection, and how it one can understand it in light of different systems. For this project Longhurst focused specifically on elite gymnasts: “I’m repeatedly drawn to human systems and structures, interested in attempts to create order from disorder, and the many ways in which we try to make sense of our place in the universe”.

The four images I selected to go with this text belong to three works under the Other Spaces project. The images on the wall belong to Suspension (I) and Momentum (Melting Point), and the intervention is part of a work entitled What is to be done? All four were presented together at the Perth Theatre & Concert Hall in 2018, as part of the European Championships cultural programme.

As with other works in this selection, I am interested in the way photography is part of a more elaborate construction, in this case a dialogue between the actions of the gymnasts, and the images on the wall. I was initially intrigued by the perfected poses of the gymnasts and an idea of touch to do with force, balance and suspension. The images in the background are blow-ups of movement scans (an experiment developed by Longhurst working with the rhythmic gymnasts of the Mangueira Social project in Rio) using a hand-held scanner is instead of a camera. The second image, to the left of the scans, shows a gymnast in a state of mid-air suspension.

These three pieces are connected by a interesting line of thought, not just about the body as instrument – and the idea of contact, force, balance and suspension – but also how photography plays a role in the construction of its ‘perfect’ performance. For me there is a contrast between contact and suspension, an original separation between two opposing states. Although it may not be a direct reference to the idea of touch as I initially thought it, this work opens the scope for a new understanding of the human body, shaped and judged through a specific discipline.

Victoria Louise Doyle‘s The Fugitive (After Levi) investigates what I think is the essential paradox of touch/the impossibility of touch. Doyle explains this work as based on the eponymous short story Italian writer Primo Levi: “An office worker is overcome with a flash of inspiration and writes a poem. Once written he attempts to preserve the poem but is thwarted with each attempt as the poem escapes once more. In a frantic and somewhat desperate effort he pastes the poem to a piece of wood, only to awaken and find the poem has ripped itself apart trying to escape.”

The office worker’s struggle to capture the poem is transposed by Doyle to photography, examining the medium’s possibilities of registering the intangible. Touch is at the very centre of the work, expressed by the image of a hand extending its reach towards the light. In a collage-based installation, Doyle places instances of this hand interspersed with a series of photographic experiments capturing the effect of light on or through different surfaces and materials.

The installation also presents Doyle’s experimentation with printing, cropping, overlaying and sequencing, in my mind also an echo of the desperate effort of the protagonist in Primo Levi’s story. Like the office worker, Doyle finds her subject in the golden light that comes through her window, and is set on a mission to capture it. But for that to happen, this abstract inspiration has to materialise (or be materialised) through the use of photography.

Returning to the idea of touch, Doyle’s image of the reaching hand reflects on the scope of this sense to perceive the world, but also the limits of photography to capture this sensory impression. The connection with the office worker and his elusive poem reinforces the seemingly pointless nature of the endeavour. But then again, it is their story that matters in the end. Not the poem. Not the light.

I close this selection with two works by Alexandre Furcolin Filho. The first, a detail from ‘Discurso’ (discourse) installation is a good example of Furcolin Filho’s staple style, combining photography with painting and drawing. The photographic image is imbued by the tactility of the materials and textures that surround it, creating a narrative that is mainly mnemonic but also sensory.

In this image, the monochrome photograph takes on the evocative associations of the greens and blues from what seems like fragments of larger paintings. The idea of a constructed image is present throughout many of the works in this project, but is most clearly exemplified here, and also in Furcolin Filho’s installations and books.

Although what first caught my attention was the image of the hands, what lingered in my mind was not the photograph itself but a type of sensory image I associate with my own memories and can only describe through senses other than the visual. The smell of ripe melon. The feeling of its flesh to the fingers. The dozy heat of summer.

This work for me has become key to think about the feeling of touch, and especially the memory of touch. This fragment of Discurso has really stuck in my mind during these days of enforced distancing and indoor isolation. It also has to do with longing. In the face of restrictions I find myself craving exactly that which is banned. The outside. A memory of touch.

There is another image of Furcolin Filho that I cannot get out of my mind. What I find particular is that this image doesn’t include a hand, or even a body. It is part of a series entitled Three Hearts as One, and it is an image of three mattresses piled together. It struck me as an amazing visual metaphor for a specific kind of touch, for me to do with human closeness and fraternity.

Three Hearts as One portrays a dynamic interdependence, a momentary balance of forces, played by the contortion and weight of the objects in the frame. It is interesting to use this image to think about the body, and to find ways of connecting it to haptic memories. The three mattresses become bodies, and are imbued not only with corporeal properties but also with a sense of emotion. For Furcolin, “this project deals with the notion of shelter, ancestrality and the process of shaping identity and family affection, and it was inspired by thoughts of Amerindian Cosmology“.

Through photography, objects refer to bodies, and bodies refer to family, dwelling, and cosmos. In my reading of this image, it is the contact – a purposeful touch- that lies at the centre of the multi-layered construction of meaning. It is a primal bond, an essential idea of intimacy, very contentious in this moment of isolation and stillness.

Today is end of the first month in lockdown. These past few weeks have given me time to have conversations with artists, discover new work but most importantly to reflect on questions about the body and it’s connections to photography.

After assembling this list of works I was surprised to find such a variety of approaches, and especially a common intention by all artists to push and redefine the limits of photography. It is very exciting to see how a number of contemporary practices are finding fertile ground in the liminal peripheries of the medium. These are the spaces I feel more excited about, finding convergences and conceptual connections with drawing, painting, sound, sculpture and performance.

April 24, 2020