Touch and the Sensorial Body
Bonnie Kemske: Artist, writer, curator
The clay is cool but warms quickly against my skin.
It feels snug, contained, comfortable – caressed?
Touch is the first sense to appear in the developing foetus and the last sense to leave us as we near death. We touch and are touched, and we are not separate from the object we hold in our hands or against our bodies – to experience the object is for it to become part of us. Maurice Merleau-Ponty said: ‘…there is overlapping or encroachment, so that we must say that the things pass into us as well as we into the things.’ In this way, there is a blurring of subject and object.
Applied art, with its historical emphasis on materials and function, is a fecund field in which to develop artworks that go beyond the visual, either immediately through engagement with our other senses, or indirectly by sense memory and evocation. It is the theoretical exploration of touch that underpins my own ceramic sculptural work.
When ‘casting hugs’ directly with my body, the form and I exist only in relation to each other, connecting in an intimate and ever-shifting state of interaction and shared influence. The finished soft textured ceramic objects instinctively invite a reciprocal embrace from exhibition visitors, who describe the experience of holding the sculptural artworks as self-reflective, comforting, and safe, a positive moment of heightened body awareness and self-intimacy that I refer to as ‘grounded sensuality’.
Each of us experiences touch, the embrace, and the caress individually, bringing with us our own histories of tactility and physical and emotional states of being: ‘As soon as I fit it to my body and found a place where it was comfortable, it felt as if I was hugging an extension of myself. I had a sense of how I was changing it as much as it was affecting me.’ The way we touch, our physical responses, the emotions our touch engenders help define us as both human and as individuals.
Interpretation of an art object:
As you enter the Sensorial Objects exhibition do not be afraid to suspend your skills in visual assessment and evaluation. Allow what Kitarō Nishida described as ‘pure experience’, a perception without analysis. Then allow yourself to bring to mind a sense of what these works evoke in you. Perhaps it will be a perception of a texture or a feeling of being pulled into the depth of a colour. Or perhaps, if you allow it, an associative sense memory may arise from something specific – a shape, an edge, a contrast, or even a smell. These sense memories are what form us – they are part of what we are – and they deserve acknowledgement in our lives. Sensorial Objects gives us the opportunity for that acknowledgement.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, The Visible and the Invisible: Followed by Working Notes _Alphonso Lingis, ed. Claude Lefort trans. Northwestern University Press: Evanston, p. 123, 1968
Kemske, B. Embracing sculptural ceramics: a lived experience of touch in art, The Senses & Society, 4.3, November 2009
An exhibition visitor on holding a Cast Hug.
Kitarō Nishida has lain particular stress on experience throughout his writings since his early studies. See, for
example, Zen no Kenkyu (A Study of the Good), especially Chapter 1, ‘Junsui Keiken’ (‘PureExperience’), in Nishida
Kitaro Zenshu, Vol. I (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1952), p. 9ff.