Please (do not) touch, by Inês Norton
She lived in images; she thought through images. She tasted every flavour and breathed a whole perfume cabinet bought over a lifetime. But it was the touch that told her who she was and where she belonged to; the touch was the moment of meaning.
The skin is an inhabitable place. With pleasure on some occasions, with tremendous anguish on others. Between the physical and the psychic skin, the subject establishes their own identity mediated by the largest organ of all. From thermal to sexual feelings, from pain to cuddling, from defence to disarming, the skin is a living map, the mapping of desire, fear and epochs. In the age of visual compulsion and desensitization of contemplation, the skin is the emotion-ridden organ, the aesthetic amplifier of major individual and even collective episodes.
The technological age has been the culprit of an odd relationship with touch. On the one hand, it requires it and its activation depends on it but, on the other, in its acknowledged asepsis, touch implies the threat of a microbial, unclean and impure body. Nowadays, touch operates to allow one to get acquainted with the plastic and silicon-made body rather than to know any and every fold, pore, hair and texture of the biological body. The technological dream is the liberation of the touch and the day will come when the touch is nothing but a dream or a diaphanous reverie of what it represented for mankind and for the knowledge of the world.
Please (Do Not) Touch, by Inês Norton, curated by Adelaide Ginga and Emília Ferreira, is partially the recollection of that sense and the tensions generated by the digital breakthroughs as a sense that replaces all others. Norton stretches an imaginary skin, she folds and protects it, while wrapping it around objects. Each work marks the deconstruction of the skin and the touch, without relying on any organic material. After all, everything sits upon the idea of emulation of the real touch devices. There is no roughness and all is aligned with modernity’s suaveness and refinement: the latex, the metal, the tablet screen, the plastic. Everything is smooth, with no friction or any unpleasant rough features.
The exhibition also delves into the double meaning of the word sense, profusely explored in the French language and by phenomenologists: establishing a direct connection between senses from the standpoint of sensoriality, sensation and sense, through a rational perspective, intended to sort some kind of matter. If man’s alienation from their own senses, through the avatar of the body in a virtual territory, coincides with the separation and suspicion regarding the truths of the past, that cannot be seen as a surprise. The loss of contact with sensations and with the world amounts to a loss of sense of the world, society, nature, politics.
The Interlude of Surface almost has a sexual nature. The fabric hanging over the brass frame invites one to touch it, using hands and arms. The same takes place in The Interlude of Surface or Collected by a Toucher, where the hand-size scale appeals to the one’s sense of handling and touch-based comprehension.
In Contactless, the viewer sees these invitations denied. The naked body is enwrapped in a plastic film, protecting it but also sanitizing it, preventing any contact with other people’s bodies. Nakedness is plasticized, as so is sex in the digital era. As a matter of fact, we encounter recollections of this idea a bit all over the exhibition, explicitly or not.
Three Doses of Visual Seduction is perhaps the most remarkable work, one that the spectator could contemplate for hours. A soft curtain adds a sense of intimacy – a word duly justified in this case. Inside, under a fiberglass console, glittery, smooth and flesh-coloured, a tablet simulates a viscous organ, which can be wiggled, distorted, stirred with the fingers, without ever feeling the real texture of flesh, blood and fat. Every touch comes with the desire to excavate, scrape, open a wound, thrust into an organic, purulent and sticky body. The ascetic tendency of modern society instils in us a profound, almost violent desires to return to the basics, to nature. The renewed puritanism of the plastic and distant society excavates an inner pit from the quest for the opposite.
Please (do not) touch is a return to the touch. On the one hand, through the suppression of it, on the other through the invitation to touch the pieces. Deep down, the exhibition also opens the debate on the inversion of the perception of works of art displayed in a museum, propelling a reinterpretation of the museological laws and paradigms, in which the optic gives way to the haptic, with its benefits and perversions. It becomes clear that museums will come across more touch-related problems in the future. Please do not touch; please touch it carefully; please, touch and interact with it – are subtitled expressions that, in addition to a certain irony and whimsicality, carry serious questions related the community and the museum network. The tendency to touch enforces a change in the understanding of art, something that museums must ponder, not only from the perspective of historical concepts and from history itself, but also from the point of view of conservation and restoration.
Until 27 October, at the National Museum of Contemporary Art.