Selina Mills

Using our imagination

Selina Mills feels her way round an exhibition designed to appeal to the blind

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Sensory deprivation has, it would seem, become fashionable these days. As well as restaurants opening in Paris and London for seeing people to experience not seeing (dining in the dark), there is now a dating service where you meet your ‘blind’ date in the dark (supposedly avoiding image issues), and spas have created weekend packages where you can be blindfolded for 72 hours, and experience bumping into your fellow inmates on the way to the steam room — hopefully not in the nude.

Whether this new-found interest in the non-seeing world stems from a need to make sense of the mass of images inundating our daily lives, or whether it is just another way of making money, is hard to tell. But interest in the non-seeing community has now spilled over into the arts world, with Sounding Architecture at the Serpentine (7–12 August) and Tate Modern’s exhibition, Raised Awareness (until 30 September). The Serpentine project explores the ‘non-visual perceptions of architectural space and the environment’, with the sound artist Kaffe Matthews and artist Lynn Cox. And the Tate show has been billed as ‘specifically, but not exclusively, designed to appeal to blind and partially sighted visitors’. According to the Tate, this is the first time, in Britain at least, that an exhibition has been entirely dedicated to giving the non-visual community access to the contemporary art scene.

The show features 23 drawings by contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst, Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor, Marc Quinn, and the co-curator of the show, he of the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, Bill Woodrow. The exhibits are made accessible to blind and visually impaired people by means of a raised image placed on a waist-high touch table around the show room. They are described as ‘interpreted touchable reliefs’ and have been created by students of Tate Modern’s Raw Canvas project.

Going to a show with such a list of well-known celebrity artists is bound to pull contemporary-art lovers through the door. But for me, a partially sighted journalist, it also provokes many questions about art and our perceptions of art. In the first instance, is feeling a piece of work the same as seeing it, and are the criteria for judging tactile art the same as they would be in the visual world? Does a raised image improve on the original art, or detract from it? Above all, and far more important during these long summer days, is this an exhibit to which you can effortlessly take your ageing relative, whose declining eyesight limits your annual duty outing, or is it best left to your trendy American cousins just arrived from New York?

There are no quick answers in the world of touch, as everything takes more time to consider. As someone who can still just see the drawings but who is also learning to learn the world by touch, the experience is rather strange but fascinating. There is something immensely intimate and sensual about touching an art work in public — you almost feel uncomfortable, nay, naughty, touching so liberally in the presence of others.

It also took me more time to translate what I touched into a language that I would use with visual art. Touching Bill Woodrow’s drawing, ‘Ship in a bottle’, for example, was akin to playing the piano. You reach your hands across the canvas, and learn the boundaries of the bottle. Then your fingers slowly find details such as lines and curves, and you follow the movement of the lines. In this instance, it gave one a sense of calm and continuity, alongside an appreciation of the irony of touching the inside of the bottle (the ship), which visual folk could not.

It was also fun to read an artist’s imagery. Damien Hirst’s ‘Untitled’ prints from 2003 seemed to be a circular pattern of black dots — some radiating in a line from a central point. In others, the dots formed spirals, making your fingers move around to look for the next dot. According to the accompanying blurb, it was supposed to make us think of Braille. I didn’t, and neither did the blind lady beside me (who could read Braille), who thought it ‘boring’. For me, though, it was, to a certain extent, intriguing, and almost liberating, following an unknown map without anyone else’s help.

It would be foolish, of course, to ignore the fact that it is not possible to translate illusions such as perspective, light and dark, and golden triangles into a raised image for blind people. A viewer either succumbs to the trick of perceiving distance on a flat canvas or does not, and the same rules of seduction apply to tactile art that you cannot see: are you being seduced to touch it again, to feel opened by the lines, or constricted. Are you being pulled in or stretched out? Is the depth convincing? Do you want to stay and ‘feel’ it all day, or could you not care less? After caressing 23 images, and talking about my response with an erudite seeing-stranger, we came to the conclusion that art, whether one is blind or not, is about how we respond to it through the imagination.

It would be fair to say that a few things annoyed me and a few raised images bored me — my fingers just could not be bothered to keep searching the canvas. The gallery chosen was too small, and I continually hit everyone (including children and a plethora of busy guide dogs) with my cane to get to the replicas. Also, all the commissioned artists were seeing artists — perhaps, as at the Royal College of Art, where there is an annual exhibition of blind art, blind artists could have been commissioned, too?

But in essence this show is a brave concept, and it is definitely worth taking anyone who is intrigued to explore their notions of perception, including ageing or trendy relatives. The show works because it is simple, and makes no pretence to knowing what blind people feel. It offers the idea that contemporary art can be accessible to people with vision problems and it does so without cloying, patronising bells and whistles.

Its Tate curator, Marcus Horley, is said to consider Raised Awareness as an experiment. Judging by the amount of people bypassing Frieda Kahlo to have a ‘feel’ of a Damien Hirst on the third floor, the experiment is a success.