Out of Touch
Jelena Bolevich

Content warning: the following article contains an image of a victim of war

Touch fills nature with mysterious forces; without it, nature remains like the delightful landscapes of the magic lantern, light, flat and chimerical - Henri Focillon

In the space of a few months, the global pandemic has trained us to obediently keep our distance from each other. Touch, something once taken for granted, is now something we ration out carefully to those closest to us. The thought of rubbing shoulders with a stranger, laying my hand on a public surface, triggers a faint feeling of uneasiness. As someone who finds solace most often in art, I am inclined to ask whether art may, in any way, help us rethink the sense of touch at this time?

I tap my greasy phone screen to enlarge a googled image of The Sense of Touch (1618), painted by Jan Brueghel the Elder in collaboration with Peter Paul Rubens. Belonging to a series of allegorical paintings of the senses, its surface is crammed with ornate symbols that metaphorize the sense of touch. Set among grand paintings, grapes, a luxuriant rug, Venus, goddess of love, embraces the cherubian Cupid, indulging in the pleasures of physical contact. To the left, the scene suddenly morphs into a blacksmith’s workshop. A garbage heap of metal dominates the scene, which under closer inspection becomes suits of armour at varying degrees of dismemberment. Armour is an impenetrable barrier, signalling protection of the skin from an external enemy.

Poking around at my screen, I am certain that touch was something very different for people in Brueghel’s lifetime. Yet, the painting, with Venus on one side, armour on the other, depicts a conflict that defines our present moment – the tension between touch as something that is cherished, vital to our feeling, and touch as something dangerous to our vulnerable bodies. Touch is the sense we are most in need of, but ironically perhaps one of the most dangerous things we can do. Both a weapon and source of comfort. The surface of the skin is now more than the boundary between the self and others. It is the transit point between purity and contagion. The face mask has suddenly become a flimsy fabric armour that symbolises our defence against each other and the world.
Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens, The Sense of Touch, 1618. Oil on canvas.

Beyond the painted image, the relationship of touch to the experience of art is itself remarkably conflicted. Touch has been both the most neglected, yet most vital of the senses since Aristotle established a hierarchy of the senses in his Metaphysics, ranking them according to their philosophical value. Sight, as the essence of intellect, ranked the highest, followed by hearing, smell and taste. Touch, as the sense common to all animals, was ranked the lowest. Through touch, Aristotle claimed, only the most primordial needs of nutrition are satisfied, while remaining irrelevant to the act of thought. Paradoxically, Aristotle acknowledged that unlike any other sense, to lose the sense of touch would be tantamount to death. The lowest sense is also the lowest common denominator of existence.
With Christianity, the animalistic sense of touch became associated with the impure, human world of bodily pleasures. In his Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1915), Emile Durkheim famously defined religion as the distancing of all things profane, belonging to the mundane human world, from the sacred, the untouchable holy realm. To possess the sacred object would be to degrade its pure status, thus turning touch into an act of transgression. We might consider the medieval reliquary casket as an object that embodied protection of the sacred from touch. Constructed as gold and gem-gilded, house-shaped enclosures, reliquary caskets hid objects once owned by saints, those closest to god, from lay access. Their placement in elevated positions in sites of worship established the veneration of the sacred from a distance, removed from the touch of profane human hands. Such arrangements made it clear where touch stood in relation to the beautiful object, the holy treasure, designated as its humble opposite.
In spite of its poor reputation, reconsiderations of touch within the visual arts emerged. Conceived two years before Brueghel’s grand Allegory, Spanish painter Jusepe de Ribera’s The Sense of Touch presents a different picture of this sense. In it, a blind poet cradles a marble bust, feeling its contours with concentration. A small portrait painting lies on the table in front of him, waiting to be picked up. The image reflects the central role of touch in the Paragone,renaissance debates surrounding the merits of sculpture and painting. While the content of the sculpture may be revealed to the blind man through touch, an encounter with the painting would reveal nothing but a flat surface. For proponents of painting, the inaccessibility of touch to the beauty and depth depicted by the painted image was proof of its transcendence. Defenders of sculpture saw the contrary: by exposing the canvas for the flat object that it is, touch reveals the illusion of painting – its pretension to the three- dimensional reality of sculpture.

Jusepe de Ribera, The sense of Touch, c. 1615-16. Oil on canvas.

This alliance of touch with truth suggests that through this sense, we come to know something beyond what the eyes can assume. The wisdom of touch would be echoed a century later in the materialist philosophy of Denis Diderot, who asserted that “the hands are despised for their materialism.” It is indeed the hands that spoil illusions, bringing us back to the cold ‘matter’ of things. After all, is it not the materiality of the skin, its ability to both receive and protect from harm, that has awoken us to the fragility of human existence in our current situation?

It is nonetheless the association of touch with transgression that has come to define our experience of art objects today. The display of art has been instructive in no touching, all too often accompanied by a ‘please don’t touch’ sign, as if preparing us for this moment in which keeping distance from others is imperative. The artwork is the ultimate untouchable body, to which the human touch presents a risk of destruction. In what is now the secular temple of the museum, or the sanitary white cube of the gallery space, distanced contemplation of art is a mark of civility. In here, distance is enshrined as the means to aesthetic appreciation of the art object. An ideal asserted by the modern aesthetic theory of Theodor Adorno, for whom the sacred becomes the aesthetic realm of the artwork, separated from the practical sphere of

everyday life. As such, ‘closeness’ to any work of art was paradoxically contingent on the observer keeping a distance from it, to resist ‘intervening’ in it. To touch is once again to tarnish.

And why wouldn’t we guard the artwork from the threat of human touch? From human hands that wreak decay and destruction, capable of vandalism, like when English suffragette Mary Richardson took to the nude, vulnerable body of Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus with a meat cleaver. It may be no surprise that on the outside, in the absence of human intervention, we have seen the clearing skies of Beijing, wildflowers growing in the cities, the return of fish to the canals of Venice. The virus has made it viscerally clear that the world flourishes in the absence of our presence, spoiling everything we touch by transforming it into exploitable capital.

While the art object may demand that we keep our distance, with our destructive hands by our sides, art beckons contact of another kind by summoning an audience to congregate in its presence. Early20th century French playwright Antonin Artaud likened the effect of theatre on its audience to the spread of bubonic plague, as a “delirium” communicated between bodies in proximity. Much like the ‘community transmission’ of a virus, couldn’t we think of audiences in the physical presence of art as bodies in dialogue, at once transmitting and receiving a collective experience?

This social meshwork became visible through the participatory events and installations that abounded from the late 20th century, with art taking a ‘social turn’ as coined by Claire Bishop. We might think of Rikrit Tiravanija’s infamous makeshift restaurants staged in gallery spaces, or Tino Seghal’s constructed situations that coaxed audiences into conversation and exchange with planted performers. Such actions, now designated highest risk, broke the barrier between art and audience by making human contact and reciprocity itself into art. The transformation of viewers into participants was a reminder that art is dependent on the realm of human touch, not a treasure to be protected from it. Amidst the individualism of neoliberal society, art was a potential source of community, spread from person to person through human interaction.

Of course, to consider proximity as the antidote to the creeping modern condition of isolation now seems like a naively utopian aspiration. Touch, both precious and neglected, is now rather ironically the root of isolation. The virus has given us a confronting dose of community: its indiscriminate invasion of human bodies has transcended our self-imposed class and cultural divides, laying bare our connection to one another as organisms of the same global petri dish. Yet the danger of touch has far from extinguished the yearning for the communal experience of art, the ritual of exhibition-going. While internet art may be nothing new, a myriad of artists and galleries are attempting to rehabilitate the experience of belonging to an art audience by simulating forms of ‘togetherness’ online. The immaterial space of the internet now affords us the pleasure of clicking through virtual collections, down gilded museum hallways and Biennale displays across the world, attending exhibition openings and artist talks on Zoom, all from the comfort of our own crumb-covered sofas.

The immaterial space of the internet now affords us the pleasure of clicking through virtual collections, down gilded museum hallways and Biennale displays across the world, attending exhibition openings and artist talks on Zoom, all from the comfort of our own crumb-covered sofas.

Tino Seghal, These Associations, Tate Modern, 2012.

If participation in art is an increasingly visual, online experience, does sight become a surrogate for touch? Perhaps time spent gazing at artworks from a distance has primed us for using our ‘tactile imagination,’ as art historian Bernard Berenson once called it, conjuring a sense of empathy with an image by imagining what it might be like to touch its depicted subject. The online art event is now one among numerous digital interactions that force us to extend our ‘tactile’ imaginations to empathise with those we can only see on a screen.

Participating in cyberspace, we imagine ourselves as a community of people connected by our shared certainty of uncertainty, paused lives and careers, wallowing in our mutual state of vulnerability and contagiousness. As if to bring sight even closer to touch, the tactility of imagination is now substantiated through the touch screen, as the membrane through which contact and proximity with others is simulated. The responsiveness of the glass surface to a simple tap of the finger when sending an affectionate emoji or ‘liking’ a social media post creates the impression of touching the other.

As the touch screen mediates our interactions one by one, stimulating the imagination, it becomes all too easy to mistake touching the screen for being ‘in touch’ with what we see. I am reminded of Thomas Hirschhorn’s 2013 video work Touching Reality, which confronts viewers with a finger scrolling through gruesome digital images of the carnage of war on what could be an iPad screen. The anonymous user occasionally stops to zoom in on exploded flesh or debris strewn across the ground, before continuing on, unphased. While horror of this calibre may rarely be viewed on our own screens, the finger is a familiar sight, mimicking the way we so casually scroll past the plethora of internet content that fills our time in isolation. With sombre news updates spliced among corporate-sponsored, pixelated constructions of desire, how thin can imagined empathy be stretched before it turns into indifference? Hirschhorn reminds us that no matter how close the touch screen makes us feel to the texture of reality, it amounts to nothing but a solid barrier, a symbol of our distance from it.

Thomas Hirschhorn, Touching Reality, 2013. Video still.

Looking down at my searched image, I realise that if Bruegel was to repaint his allegory of touch today, it would most probably resemble Venus with her face hidden behind a screen, grinning at a sequence of emojis, or a Zoom-filtered wave from a distant lover. This scene is now the reality for most, yet something escapes it. As sight, Aristotle’s noble sense, becomes the vehicle for our gradual immersion in technologically mediated spectacles, perhaps the value of the lowly sense of touch is precisely its confinement to experience of the here and now. Touch exposes us to nothing more than our immediate surroundings. Until commercial technologies find a way to capitalise on this sense, to touch is to maintain a connection to the physical world beyond the screen image. Like the blind man’s fingertips encountering the flatness of the painted canvas, perhaps we should appreciate the ‘materiality of the hands’ as we poke at the images on our screens, exposing them as mere illusions flickering across a flat surface.

The fact remains that no amount of reflection changes the reality that touch is needed, yet dangerous. Instead of offering resolutions, the relationship between art and touch only mirrors this conflict. As we gradually rethink what it means to congregate with others as sensitive, sensory bodies, we might begin by acknowledging touch, the lowest common sense, as something that connects us to a world we knew before.

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