“How do you touch something without touching it?.”
A Portland State undergrad named Cooper posed this question as he helped me prepare for a teacher workshop at the Portland Art Museum. We were setting up art materials to make “artifacts” after an in-depth consideration of William Morris’ masterwork “Artifact Panel.”
The Morris piece can be thought of as a kind of endless question-poser in its own right. It is made up of 399 glass objects from the artist’s hand, suspended at the ends of wires stuck like insect collection pins into a three-story black panel mounted in the Northwest Art wing of the museum. The stunning grid of colored objects, by turns organic and abstract, recognizable and inscrutable, contrasts the scientific and the mystical, the known and the mysterious, fact and myth, event and record. The idea was to use the panel as a kind of Rorschach device, accumulating perspectives and associations until we had something of our own to make into an artifact.
At first we just looked, contemplatively (The name of the educational event was “Slow Looking.”) We tossed out words that arose from objects, then made hybrid words from them: horsewater, crowjug, skullspoon. We collected patterns and vignettes from intriguing shadows cast on the panel, then wrote and drew from those.
One thing all of us– math teacher, writing instructor, art educators, and undergrads– noticed was the difference between the organic-looking objects and their mathematically precise organization on the rectangular panel. There was powerful tension between the quantifiable geometrical placement and the mysterious purpose of the objects, often abstract (one looks like a cross between a sea anemone and a bottle opener.)
I was curious to see how gesture and movement might add to our understanding of the piece and its parts. We each chose a line at the edge of an artifact we liked, and copied that line with our fingers in space. When we had memorized the line so we could draw it anywhere and at any size, we shared our lines with the others, scribing them large on the air before us. In this way we each presented an aspect of something, with the body the more important teller than the voice. When we got loose and comfortable drawing in space, we all danced our lines while facing the objects on the panel, celebrating silently the mute music of their notes. This response had the look of ritual to it.
Such an exercise might seem silly if one does not understand how dance locks the encounter in the memory. You can really get to know a thing by dancing with it. The body echoes lines, turns motion into sound, inscribes vision on its moving cells. The memory is heightened, and connections with past knowings, similar visions, recollected conversations– all converge.
After we felt the objects in our bodies, we traveled to the studio to make artifacts of our own. I encouraged them to carry the feeling they’d had while drawing on the air, inviting them to translate their 3-D understanding, along with our conversations and wordplay, into a form that would express something of their encounter with the panel.
I asked Michael Strelow, who is equal parts writer and literature professor, about the creative impulse to give significance to sundry artifacts. He says we start by sorting, making piles out of stuff.
“We place the disparate into patterns that help us survive. It’s a way of interpreting meaning from a world that isn’t going to give it.” From there we make our own interpretations, sometimes in the form of an artistic statement that adds to the inquiry.
“Each interpretive thing– dance or art or story or sculpture– is part of a larger version of things. Patterns beget patterns.” He says the possibilities are limitless if you Look Slowly enough: “The question becomes: how much longer are you willing to spend with a work before the next level of complexity is revealed?”
By the time our studio session was complete each person had made and painted a clay object and mounted it on a black rectangle using Morris’ format, and we had learned a great deal. When our math teacher explained how she teaches the process of translation to reproduce a shape to scale, the art teachers realized that we do the same when we teach drawing. We learned that you can borrow across art forms, that random leaps adjoining disparate notions can lead to fertile ideas, that movement is a way of conjuring content for stories or pictures. Finally, we were able to recognize in each others’ work the borrowed contours we had drawn in the air.
This got me thinking about Cooper’s question, how to touch without touching. No one had laid a hand on any part of “Artifact Panel” (there is a gap between viewer and work of at least eight feet and an alarm if you try). Yet there had been a kinesthetic impression when vision and movement were linked. A thread of experience had entered through the eyes, moved to the arms and fingers, and continued on into the small sculptures we produced. Morris’ piece had activated the sense of touch; by attaching visual understanding to physical sensation, a new way of knowing had been achieved. Feeling produced by touch on skin had been replaced by emotional feeling expressed in movement. It was touch without touch, a different way for an object to impress the human organism. It brought to mind the sentiments of Helen Keller: “The best and most beloved things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, but must be felt with the heart.”