TOUCH ART is a new art form that is based on the sense of
There are visual and auditory arts, as well as applied arts of taste (cookery) and smell (perfumery) but the foundations of the tactile arts have not yet been laid.
Touch as a sense had never been explored fully in
aesthetic terms even though it is one of our basic
senses. Throughout our lives we have enormous amount of different touch experiences. Why then there
are no art works based on this unique human
feeling that Aristotle considered to be quintessentially human?
"...Touch reaches in man the maximum of discriminative accuracy.
While in respect of all the other senses we fall below many
species of animals, in respect of touch we far excel all other
species in exactness of discrimination. That is why man is the most intelligent of all animals. This is confirmed by the fact that it
is to differences in the organ of touch and to nothing else that
the differences between man and man in respect of natural
endowment are due; men whose flesh is hard are ill-endowed
by nature, men whose flesh is soft, wellendowed. " Aristotle.
On the Soul. Book 2, part 9, (421a 20-25)
Like visual art is not only for those who cannot
hear, and music is not only for those who cannot see, touch art is for everyone. It is a huge blank field of
artistic exploration, and we are ready to start to fill
Touch art can be considered a kind of the body
art because, unlike visual and audio art, it excludes any distance between the body and the object. In some cases, touch art installations
might require darkness and silence. Touch is the most intimate sense of our body that could create a variety of new powerful art
Touch Art was first projected as a distinct art form by the cultural and literary scholar Mikhail Epstein in Moscow (Russia), in his book "New Sectarianism" (1984-1988; first published in 1993).
translated from Russian by Eve Adler (Middlebury College)
to be made by hand, to bear the stamp of man, to absorb his warmth. This
is the only way they can join the ranks of the integral things of which
signs are merely one-dimensional projections. A thing ought to exude its
meaning not abstractly but palpably, just as it exudes warmth or an aroma.
The feel of a thing in the hand should be like a friendly squeeze…. It's
no accident that our times have seen the birth of a new kind of art that
addresses the sense of touch. The works of this art are specially made
to be enjoyed by touch alone, in darkness and silence; for the "toucher"
(cf. "spectator," "listener"), the surface of a thing becomes an object
of the most subtle experiences, the arena of an artistic quest. "Oh if
we could recover the shame of sighted fingers / and the bulging joy of
recognition (O. Mandelshtam). Our tactile art is a response
Whereas the spectator and the listener are dealing with projections or symbols of things, the toucher is dealing with the thing itself, a continuation, as it were, of his own hand and body. The visual and auditory senses are overly concerned with signs; they are too intellectual and ideological, always looking for truth somewhere beyond the things, rather than in the things themselves. Sight and hearing are subject to illusions—it's common enough to "have visions" or "hear voices"—but the tactile sense doesn't lie; it touches the very reality of things. After all, touch is not the perception of a conventional signal far from its source, like light rays or sound waves; touch is "direct access" and even assimilation: flesh with flesh, like with like. The apostle Thomas didn't trust his own eyes and ears, but insisted on touching the flesh of the risen Christ with his fingers—for which he received the Teacher's blessing. Faith is like the sense of touch, groping for what can really be trusted. . . .
This is why we are learning to sense things in the dark, like blind men developing their capacity for spiritual sight. A thing submerged in darkness begins emitting a spiritual light that can be sensed by touch. This is the basis of the Thingwrights' new art form, "sculpture-in-the-dark," or tactile sculpture. No one has ever seen these sculptures, which are submerged in the permanent darkness of underground exhibition halls. Only the sculptor, perhaps, in a moment of weakness or spiritual exhaustion, may have allowed himself a peek at the work of his own hands, a work designed to be sensed by touch alone. For all we know, the visible form of these statues may be ugly, even hideous. But how much they express to sensitive fingers ranging over their delicate tendrils and subtle ligatures, probing all their poetry of invisible and undissembling beauty, the immediacy of their continuity with our own hands, our own bodies! Sculpture-in-the-dark summons forth the deepest artistic attention not to the mere signs of being, but to being as such, in all the purity of its presence. (R.A., "The Twelfth Muse: On the Art of Touch")
We have visual and auditory arts, as well as applied arts of taste
and smell (gastronomy, perfumery). But the foundations of the tactile arts
have not yet been laid. Only in the single sphere of the amatory caress
have the laws of touch been worked out, in ancient treatises like the Kama
Sutra. But why does touch have to be connected only with lust, with passion?
Couldn't it just as well be an instrument of sobriety, of sensing the pure
form of things? Sobriety is the perception of a boundary, the capacity
of distinguishing one thing from another. The mind gets drunk when it plunges
into the dark, deceptive depth of things; touch sobers it up by adhering
strictly to the surface, probing the boundaries of things, ascertaining
their separateness and impermeability.
Religious texts speak of touch as contact with something sacred, the body or clothing of another person. But human beings are too weak to touch someone else's body without falling into the temptation of sinful thoughts. Such contact evokes either undue revulsion and disgust or undue attraction and lust. This is why people who are not yet spiritually tempered must cultivate the art of sobriety by touching inanimate things.
After long practice in perfecting the sense of touch, one begins to feel on the surface of things everything that is inside them. Eventually, one comes to feel completely intangible things, and in the darkness where this occurs, an immaterial light begins to glimmer through the heat. It is precisely through the sense of touch, the most sensitive of the senses, that sensation itself dissolves. It is precisely through things, the most corporeal of phenomena, that corporeality itself dissolves. This is why perfect sobriety can be achieved only through the art of touch. (N.I., "The Fifth Way")
Making things with one's own hands is one of the paths to holiness, to knowledge of God. It was the path of many Egyptian monks, who practiced such crafts as basket weaving. This path leads to the experience of bethinging, where the making of a thing becomes an act of internal making…. A thing is our nearest "it"; it unites my "I" with the divine "Thou." This is the clearest way of grasping the mystery of the Three that are One: man—thing—God. Without the thing, we would be missing the essential third link, equidistant from God and man. . . .
A thing into which I have put my labor becomes my future "I," a particle of that new flesh in which I am to be resurrected. Thing-making is the pathway to eternity. I enter into a thing and become lost in it until I finish it. Then I find myself in it yet again, but transformed: I see a glow of meaning that came from me, or rather, came through me and was incarnated in the thing. My will, my design is now within it, and it now gives me a holy joy, a triumphant feeling—something incomparably greater than what I put into it. (G.R., "Images of Things in the Lives of the Saints")
"There are three main divisions of the study of things. First, things as material objects are studied in the natural sciences—physics, chemistry, etc. Next, things as signs or symbols, bearers of conventional meanings, are studied in semiotics and aesthetics. Finally, things as beings valued for themselves, as singularities that cannot be reduced either to matter or to ideas, are studied in Realogy. Realogy grasps a thing by ascending from its abstract definition to its concrete being, as to the crown of creation—to this unique, unrepeatable thing, as singular as the Creator Himself . . . Alongside this theoretical discipline, there is also Reapraxis—the experience of spiritual thing-making, or spiritual development through things. . . .
Thing-making is by no means the same as artistic creation. A made thing is intended not for contemplation but for use. Thing-makers use the things they make. When they go on a trip, they take handmade leather briefcases, cardboard folders, ceramic cups, knives in wooden holders. These things need not be especially elegant or esthetically refined; the point of them is to be their owner's property in the most intimate possible way. The owner owns such a thing not as something alien, something impersonally available, but as something in which he himself abides and has his being. When you touch such a thing, it is like touching the warm hand of the owner himself.
Unlike artists, Thingwrights never sell their things; they only give them as gifts, "hitch them to another's being." Since a thing made as a work of art is to some degree a sign, it can be exchanged for monetary signs. Its being is conventional; its exhibition to spectators displaces it from being itself. But a thing made as a thing is in principle not exchangeable. (M.N., "From Thing-Knowing to Thing-Making")
Thingwrights are wise: they learn not from books but from things.
Thingwrights are laconic because they communicate not with people but with
things. On the other hand, the things they make sound like words and read
like books. (L.Y., "On Thing-Wisdom")
First publication in Russian:
Mikhail Epstein. Novoe sektantstvo: tipy religiozno-filosofskikh umonastroenii v Rossii, 1970-80-e gody (New Sectarianism: The Varieties of Religious-Philosophical Consciousness in Russia, the 1970s-1980s). Holyoke (Massachusetts): New England Publishing Co., 1993, pp. 45-47
2nd edition, reprint, Moscow: Labirint, 1994, pp. 45-47.
Forthcoming in English, under the title
Cries in the New Wilderness: The Handbook of
Heresies from the files of
the Moscow Institute of Atheism
Paul Dry Press, Philadelphia, 2002.
The first exhibition of Touch Art (Taktil'noe Iskusstvo) was opened at the Art Poligon Galery, St-Petersburg (Russia), January 19-28. 2001, with Eter de Pan'i as the curator. The exhibition was dedicated to the memory of the poet Genrikh Sapgir. It included the touch installation of Mikhail Epstein and Irina Danilova "Our favorite books." The photo documents are available on the site of the e-journal "Veer budushchnostej. Tekhno-gumanitarnyj vestnik" (The Fan of Futures. A Journet in Techno-Humanities).
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