Touching the Body: A Ceramic Possibility
(Although this paper was not selected for presentation at the Fragmented Figure conference it was considered to be of sufficient merit to warrant publication.)
The ceramic object being handled by the woman above was created as part of my PhD research into ceramics and touch, tactility, and the human body. Through both studio practice and theoretical investigation, this PhD research investigates how I as a maker can more fully engage the body’s sense of touch in encounters with sculptural ceramics.
In 2000 Dr Tiffany Field, a noted developmental psychologist and founder of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Medical School, published a book simply entitled Touch.2 She stated that within our western culture many of us are touch deprived, and she refers to this as ‘touch hunger’.3 Her research has shown the deleterious effects of being deprived of touch not only in infancy and in childhood, but in adulthood as well.
It is easy to see how the development of our touch hungry culture has been, and is, perpetuated by one strand of Northern European/American Christian heritage that equates sensuality with sin, a determined preoccupation with intellectual achievement among our middle-class oligarchy, and a rise of affluence that has led to the purchase of more and more ‘precious’ goods that must be protected in use, or not used at all.
A quick survey of popular culture can be seen to confirm our touch hunger. There are more and more appeals to our sense of touch in advertising, product design, and even in the hallowed halls of institutions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, where in June 2005 an exhibition entitled ‘Touch Me’4 opened. This exhibition included items such as Yoshi Saito’s Hug Chair, a large felt sofa-like chair that folded over the sitter. In advertising, Shell Oil’s 2005 poster for Optimax petrol carried the slogan ‘feel the difference’. Technological developments also contribute to touch hunger. As Pamela Johnson states, ‘ . . . we may observe that to be “in touch” increasingly involves no actual touch.’5 The everyday digital world, being restricted to keyboards and smooth touch pads, is lacking in stimulating tactile experiences,6 and designers, manufacturers, and advertisers are trying to fill the gap. Many use either pictorial images or simply words to evoke the sense of touch. One of Samsung’s recent advertisements on the London Underground and online can be seen as an example of this, as they advertise their E530 mobile phone with the slogan ‘looks great feels even better’. Another tactile design product, interestingly available only online and intended for use with video gaming, also reflects this trend. The I-Chair is an interactive lounge chair that employs changing levels of vibrations, which the distributors refer to as ‘tactile sound technology’.7
The disparagement of touch has a long history in the west and mostly occurs through the conceptual separation of body and soul and the aggrandizement of the latter. As Anne Davenport states in reference to Aristotle’s writings, ‘The highest rank among terrestrial animals is occupied . . . by the rational animal, human being, in whom a new and final principle, the rational soul, is added to the sensory soul, making him the most “perfect” terrestrial nature.’8 She continues, ‘While touch, to Aristotle, is the most basic sense, the sense without which no sensitivity and intelligence are possible, sight is heralded as the supreme sense, yielding the “purest” pleasure, paradigmatic of the ultimate perfection of sensoriality.’9 This equation which links vision to spirit and intellect has stayed with us throughout western history. The Enlightenment with its emphasis on rationality and science continued the onslaught against touch.
Although there were moments in western history when physical sensation was not underrated, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the privileging of intellect to the exclusion of sensation began to be challenged in an articulate and significant way. Prior to and during the Cold War, the threat of atomic annihilation made many people begin to fear the reign of science and rationalism, which was held responsible for the developments of the Final Solution, the Eugenics Movement, and the creation of increasingly more effective weapons such as nerve gas. This challenge contributed significantly to the development of European and American philosophy. Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s great treatise The Phenomenology of Perception10 was first published in 1945, but the English translation by Colin Smith was not published until 1962. Merleau-Ponty was an early existentialist and phenomenologist. His ideas of an embodied consciousness and the underlying supposition that all knowledge is experience-based challenged the Cartesian duality of mind/body, subject/object, intellectualism/sensualism, and exemplify the move away from Rationalism. Feminist criticism, as expounded by thinkers such as Luce Irigaray, Elizabeth Grosz, and Hélène Cixous, has drawn heavily on his work, and has used it as the springboard to argue against what is seen as a ‘phallogocularcentric’ world (phallus=male, logos=rationality, ocular=sight).
These conceptual developments, as with other postmodern perspectives, did not remain solely within the province of philosophical thought. They were manifest in every aspect of society, including art. Of course these developments are not linear or all-inclusive. Twentieth-century Formalism (from Russian Formalism through to Abstract Expressionism), with its preoccupation with the visual aspects of colour, form, line, and composition, can be seen as an anti-body, anti-sensuality stance.11
Some artists, such as those working within the Arte Povera movement, led the way to more fully engaging our senses through their use of non-traditional materials, often mundane materials with which we interact every day. Later, Damien Hirst crossed the visual barrier in works such as A Thousand Years (1990), where we were assailed by the unpleasant smells and sounds of dying flies and decaying meat. The development and acceptance of video/sound installations throughout the latter part of the twentieth century added sound to the sensory experience of art. Bill Viola’s The Crossing (1996) is a good example of this. In Adaptive (2000) Franz West encouraged viewers to wear or interact with the art works, although the materials he used felt lifeless and uninteresting, and the forms appeared more intellectual than experiential. Unfortunately, the use of videos of people using the Adaptives, such as was done at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2003, put distance between visitors and the work, and turned the visitors back into a mere spectators.
Rebecca Horn’s The Gentle Prisoner (1978) consisted of two large ‘fans’ of peacock feathers that opened and closed. In this piece, which significantly pre-dates the West work, we do not experience the work directly but through viewing film of Horn within the feathers, thus in our own ‘sense memory’, what Paul Rodaway refers to as ‘imagined touch’ in his book Sensuous Geographies.12 Tracey Emin, who eschewed concept in preference for emotional expression, clearly demonstrated this type of sense memory experience. Emin’s My Bed (1998), for instance, evoked both a tactile and an olfactory memory of body-warmed sheets with strong sexual overtones.
In studio ceramics, the 1970s and 1980s saw some artists move away from the traditional forms and shapes of ceramics, the teapots and vase forms we all knew how to handle. Ewen Henderson’s craggy constructions of erosion and geological formation still nodded to what we came to know as The Vessel, but discouraged touch by threatening injury to both the viewer and the work itself. Sandy Brown’s challenging works on womanhood with their intentional messy construction warned of possible snags and unanticipated threats. Martin Smith’s highly refined architectural pieces and Carol McNicoll’s patterned and fragmented vessels put ceramics onto the plinth and into the ‘Do Not Touch’ category of the fine art gallery. The development of this strand within the ceramics world towards fine art can be seen as an understandable move away from the ‘peasant potter’ notion often associated with the earlier part of the twentieth century. In addition to the conceptual and technical developments within these works themselves, moving to the plinth increased the perceived value of the work. It made the work ‘more precious’ and therefore more untouchable. Work that is touched and handled, especially on a daily basis, has always been seen in our society as having a lower status than that which is kept safely put away in a cupboard or a display case. In the instances above, the plinth served as the new glass-fronted china cabinet.
However, even with important works such as these, we have always retained a memory of the touch of fired clay because we are never far from ceramics within our lives. We touch them daily, even if it is only our cereal bowl in the morning. In addition, these works were created within the sphere of ceramics, not the fine arts, which means that their context also includes the continued production of tactile ceramic ware – Takeshi Yasuda’s irresistibly sensuous table pieces and Magdalene Odundo’s curvaceous burnished ware, for instance. And because of the intimacy that we share with the material, both as makers and as consumers, ceramics as a whole has never ceased to find value in the tactilely sensuous.
In the late 1980s we saw the start of a move to a form of studio ceramics that would incorporate both the sculptural aspects of the new ceramics tradition and the tactile qualities of the domestic tradition. Felicity Aylieff’s exhibition, ‘Sense and Perception’, at the Manchester Art Gallery in 2002 perhaps best exemplifies this. In this exhibition she encouraged the public to touch the work. The work itself was smoothly polished and large, easily engaging the hand to explore the delicate qualities of the surfaces.
The research project described within this paper has aimed to continue to fuse positive aspects of craft-based ceramics with issues more normally seen within fine art. The emphasis of the ceramic works lies not in the objects themselves but in a final sensual tactile experience of that work. The investigation as set out below is but one approach to the creation of such work.
The Research Investigation
We are taught that humans have five senses (vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch), but in actuality our senses are neither independent nor singular, but rather, complex integrations of many different perceptual fragments.13 For instance, within our sense of touch, different tactile qualities are integrated in a physiological network, which is constituted by the mechanics of sensation at cellular level and the peripheral nervous system, and in the processing of those sensations into perceptions within the brain.14 Throughout the body we have not only a diversity of neurons, or nerve cells, but also different densities of neurons. This results in different levels and qualities of touch perception across the body.15 Cells generally classified as receptors for skin sensitivity are close to the skin’s surface. When these receptors are activated through touch, mechanotransduction channels on the surface of the receptor cells distort. This distortion ‘tugs’ on microtubules that run into the cell, causing ions16 to flow into the cell and deionizing it.17 This is cell stimulation. The electrical impulses are then transmitted from the cell to neighbouring nerve cells. The nerves of the peripheral nervous system run to the spinal cord and brain, some making connections to other nerve cells in the spinal cord that relay the impulse on.18 In some instances where there is potential danger to the body, such as intense heat or sharpness that could break the skin, an impulse to pull away from the touched object is sent back directly from the spinal cord to the affected area of the body. This is called a reflex arc.19 But in most cases a signal is sent up the spinal cord to different, and sometimes various, areas of the brain. There, the signal is decoded or assembled into perception.20
There are several different types of receptor cells that can be found in varying densities in the three types of human skin: glabrous or hairless skin, hairy skin, and mucocutaneous skin, found in the areas bordering the entrances to the body.21 In addition, the skin has two layers: the epidermis, which is the layer on the surface of the skin and the area that contains the nerve cells for discriminatory touch, and the dermis, which is below the epidermis and in which the cells for sensations such as pressure are found.22
These various physiological components mean that we perceive tactile qualities differently across the body. These differences may have been determined by evolution over time. For instance, our fingertips are able to best distinguish pattern and fine textures, good for gripping and object recognition, whereas our backs and abdomens perceive pressure more readily, good for determining the space around ourselves. Our genitalia are more complex, being sensitive to a very light touch, vibration, and pressure, yet poor in discriminating textures.
Sensation occurs across different kinds of cells, and although most cells are not restricted to sensing one specific touch quality, many seem to take a predominant role in sensing one quality over another. For instance, the corpuscles known as Meissner’s corpuscles are thought to sense texture and a light touch, whereas Pacinian’s corpuscles, which are located deep in the skin, react to pressure and vibration.23
Messages received from the different sensors travel independently to the brain through the peripheral nervous system, but are ultimately integrated in the brain’s cortex to form conscious perception. Rosenfeld states that these impulses are best thought of as layers or networks of sensation, which, once they reach the cortex, are formed into whole perception.24 Perception is most likely created through the filter of our individual and cultural influences. In this way it can be seen that these different touch senses are not independent of each other but rather contribute to the whole of the tactile experience.
The fragmentary nature of our tactile sensory input and its subsequent coalescence does not stop here. Our other senses also contribute to our sense of touch. For instance, Spence has demonstrated an interrelationship between touch and vision in his experimental work.25 He has shown that although vision tends to dominate our perceptions, different textures can influence this. Very rough textures lead to vision dominating, whereas a fine texture will allow touch to be the dominant sense. A change in sound can also change the perception of a texture. For instance, the sound of sandpaper being scraped causes one to assess a texture as rougher than one would judge it to be without the rasping sound present. By these examples we can see that the senses are interdependent, and that a sensory experience will always be a multi-sensory experience unless for some reason we are denied the use of some part of our senses. However, this does not exclude the possibility of further development of our perceptions to create new and/or more satisfying experiences, and we can start by challenging the dominant position that vision has acquired in our society and more fully engaging our sense of touch.
The practical investigation of the understanding of the neurophysiology and cognitive neuroscience of tactile perception was initially undertaken by applying the results of a neurological test called the two-point discrimination test, which is a test used to determine different sensitivity levels across the body. In this test the subject closes his/her eyes, then a pointed calliper-like instrument is pressed against his/her skin at different parts of the body, both points being applied simultaneously. The subject indicates whether or not he/she perceives the contact as one single point or two distinct points. The distance between the two points is made larger and smaller over the touchings until a ‘threshold’ is determined, that is, the narrowest measurement at which the two points when applied simultaneously are perceived as one. Diagram A. shows a typical two-point discrimination thresholds, published by Sherrington as early as 1900.26
As you can see, the differences across the body are remarkable. For example, the fingertip registers a 2.3 millimetre threshold, whereas the upper thigh registers 67 millimetres. In light of these findings, I had my own two-point discrimination thresholds tested for use in subsequent investigations. Below is a chart showing the results of this.
First Studio Study
Outcomes of First Studio Study
Pieces made for the hallux were not effective even though our powers of discrimination are relatively high in that area of the body, as touchers found it awkward to rub their toes within or across a work.
Discussion of First Studio Study
In this work I discovered that the two-point discrimination thresholds do not translate directly into body perception, e.g., my upper thigh two-point discrimination threshold was 42 millimetres, but a texture with a density of 42 millimetres is too sparse to register as a texture. Further reading in neurology revealed that we can perceive much finer detail than our two-point discrimination thresholds. Gregory states, for instance, that we can feel ridges that are less than one-thousandth of an inch in height, and that we are even more sensitive to vibration.27
On the basis of these discoveries and observations I decided to make work that used this information relatively, rather than directly, that is, I would use finer textures for highly discriminating parts of the body, such as the hand, and coarser and less dense textures for those parts of the body with less sensitivity, such as the abdomen.
Second Studio Study
First I made a one-piece plaster cast of myself in a seated position. This cast encompassed the front part of my torso and thighs from above my breasts to just above my knees. I then used this plaster body cast as a partial hump mould. For some works, I used it as a loose mould on which to make a slabbed form. On others I started building the work on the mould using slabbing and coiling, but then continued building the piece as a closed form sitting on top of the mould, creating shapes that tactilely echoed the body parts as above. The forms were taken off the body cast, smoothed and, when leatherhard, impressed using a variety of tools to create textured surfaces. I gave the textures next to the torso and thighs a coarser and sparser texture than the areas that would be touched by the hand, on which I created a finer and denser texture.
Outcomes of Second Studio Study
The second set of work was created while I was on a student exchange to Kyoto City University of the Arts (Kyoto Geidai) from October through December 2004. Here I had no plaster body cast to use so I decided to build directly on my own body. This in itself caused many technical problems as the living body is not as firm, still, or absorbent as a plaster cast. I made three pieces in this way. The largest piece was 42 x 30 x 14 centimetres, the smallest 32 x 22 x 14.5 centimetres. They were built by coiling, using a hand-formed slab for the first piece of clay which rested against my body. On the smallest work the same tool was used for texturing both the areas of the work, the area accessible to the hand having a denser texture than the area against the body. The next piece also used the same tool for both areas and the same density was used throughout, but the two areas appeared and felt different because of the depth of the texture – the deeper the depression the wider the mark, causing the texture to be coarser. For the third piece I made a thin round-ended stamp and then made another of its obverse.
Discussion of Second Studio Study
The second set of works was much more successful. The sizes of the three forms meant that the works fit the body better. Also, there was no ridge from the body cast and this gave the pieces a more integrated and complete feel. Visually, the fact that the two textures of each piece related to each other added to a feeling of an integrated whole. An interesting issue arose with the inclusion of an opening in the larger piece. This did several things. The most problematic was that it dictated a focus, drawing both the eye and the hand back to the opening again and again. I believe that this made people explore the work less thoroughly. Every person who held the work also ran their hand into the hole, a further indication that the hole served as a tactile focus. Some put it to their ear, some stared into it, and some even blew into it. Most said that it made the work more overtly sexual, although that did not seem to inhibit exploration. The opening also created a top and bottom for the work, prescribing the way with which it was interacted. Also, smooth areas were incorporated within this piece. This did not seem to have a significant effect on how the work was handled, although I cannot be sure as the smooth areas were next to the opening.
With both sets of work it was obvious that unless I told them, people were not concerned with fitting the work to their bodies in exactly the way the work fitted to mine. In fact, they explored novel and interesting ways to experience the work. This led me to question the idea of changing the texture and texture density within a specific piece because I could not determine which areas they would use against their bodies and which areas they would explore with their hands.
Third Studio Study
Outcomes of Third Studio Study
Discussion of Third Studio Study
The Work in Exhibition
The photo above and the video clips below show work in exhibition made for the Second Studio Study, as part of the exchange I undertook to Kyoto Geidai in autumn 2004. The photo and film clips were taken at the Kyoto Art Center, a public art gallery in downtown Kyoto. The exhibition was comprised of the work from the foreign students at the university. My pieces were situated in a gallery surrounded by paintings, sculptures, photographs, and design presentations. Each ceramic piece was exhibited on one end of a bench-like plinth. On the other end was a zabuton, Japanese cushion, as an invitation to visitors to sit. There was a small sign on one plinth in Japanese that told visitors that they were allowed to handle the work but warning them that the work was heavy. During one afternoon’s invigilating alone an enormous amount of visual feedback from visitors was gained.
Three out of five pieces from the Third Studio Study were exhibited as part of ‘Touch This!’, a Late Nights event at the Victoria & Albert Museum for the ‘Touch Me’ exhibition mentioned earlier. This event drew an audience of mixed ages and with differing interests. A notice was put up on the wall to explain that the pieces were works in progress and part of an ongoing PhD research project and that they were made to fit the body. Again the works were displayed on long, low plinths, each piece positioned on one end with a cushion on the other. I was present to answer queries about the work.
Differences were apparent between the two audiences. The Japanese audience was enthusiastic and appeared to be less inhibited about touching the work. They handled the work with what seemed to be less self-consciousness. However, more people at the V&A fit the work to their bodies than did viewers/touchers in Kyoto. These could be cultural differences or could be due to the difference in settings, although both were public galleries. Many more people in Kyoto commented about the qualities of the surface textures than at the V&A. One viewer/toucher at the V&A commented that the pieces were ‘like pets’, an intriguing thought. This same man, an American ex-patriot, said that he was surprised that British people ‘really engaged’ with the work as he found the British to be ‘tactilely deprived’. His comment may reflect a cultural difference between the UK and USA, or it may reflect his own prejudice .
Some people put the work on their laps and stroked it, but did not try to fit it to their bodies. One woman could be seen to look away as she explored the work. This was an interesting response that must be encouraged as it removed the visuality of the piece and therefore probably heightened her tactile perception.
Once the work was in their laps, many people did lift and turn the work, and then tried to fit it onto different parts of their bodies. When the position for which I made the work was discovered, several held the work still against themselves for a moment, looked up and told their friends, or simply smiled. Two or three viewers/touchers later referred to this moment as being ‘just right’. This was one reaction that I believe supports my view that tactilely interacting with the work through a fuller engagement of the body can help create a satisfying experience of focus and centredness.
An unforeseen complication was that some saw the work as ‘solving a jigsaw puzzle’ and this was borne out by the fact that many people studied the work visually at great length before fitting it against themselves. This was an unexpected response that will need to be overcome in later studies.
I saw no difference in the way men and women handled the work in Japan. However, at the V&A it seemed that women handled the work more slowly and thoughtfully than most men. It raised the questions of whether or not there is a cultural gender difference or an inherent difference in the way men and women handle objects. Could it be that in the West it is less socially acceptable for men to handle these types of objects than women? Or could it be that men are more self-conscious in the UK/western world? Or perhaps the works imply femininity in our western culture, therefore making some men hesitant in their handling? Or is it possible that men and women use touch differently? That men use touch for verification, but that women more often also use it as an experience in and of itself? With the two double-skinned bowl shapes at the V&A several women very quickly fit the piece against their stomachs and commented that it was like being pregnant. Does this necessarily exclude men from experiencing these pieces in a positive way?
These issues raise the questions of whether it is the work itself or merely the way in which it was exhibited that engendered such sympathetic interaction. Would the work of Jonathan Keep, for instance, who also makes rounded forms of about the same scale, also engender such close touching? I think not, as I think their smooth evenness and the fact that they are vessels discourages such body intimacy. Felicity Aylieff directly addressed the issue of tactility in her large, highly polished sculptural works as shown at the Manchester Art Gallery in 2002. In her more recent work, for instance in White Gold, an exhibition at Flow Gallery in London (2006), she brought this well-articulated investigation back to the vessel form, but is now investigating heavy texture and the trace of the hand. Julie Wood produces work that encourages one to touch it. She works within the human scale and her works are of understated natural clay colours. They mostly address the circle form, with its connotations of eternity and perfection.30 Deirdre McLoughlin’s shapes are about the exploration of shape itself. The end results are often tactile works of human scale, again in natural clay finishes. However, the works are heavily polished to a silky smooth finish that has been compared to the feel of granite or marble.31
Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, New York, Vintage Books, 1996.
|Touching the Body Issue 8|