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The cliched phrase 'there's more to this than meets the eye' could well have been coined to describe A Touch of Seeing: a scent of sound, an exhibition of mixed media works by Candace Miles. The culmination of eighteen months of research, the artwork was informed by a thesis which explores historical and contemporary concepts of sensory perception and their relationship to creativity. A Touch of Seeing incorporated 'forms from the reef' and 'textures, sounds and smells from the environment into an interactive experience aimed at providing access to art for people with various sensory 'impairments'. For those who have the full use of their senses, it may have provided some insight into the experiences of those with different sensory capabilities.
As suggested by the name of the exhibition, Miles personally deems the sense of touch to be paramount among the human senses. It is the sense of sight, however, which tends to be more highly valued in our society. She presents a convincing argument for a reassessment of abilities and limitations, and a less hierarchical and more inclusive model of the senses:
Perhaps all our senses actually accomplish their end through the process of connection, touch or contact, in some respect-our eyes have to be touched by light in order that we can see at all; the tiny hairs on our ear drums have to be touched by vibrations interpreted as sound in order for us to hear, our nose and tongue have to be contacted by chemical molecules in order for us to smell and taste; for our mental processes to occur electrochemicals make contact with dendrites ... In fact touch, or contact, can be seen as not just the fundamental process of all our senses but the fundamental process of life itself ... (Miles 1999; 34)
... to place light and vision in a position of pre-eminence has deeply influenced our sense of self and perhaps taken toll of the sighted and the blind alike. (Miles 1999; 17-18)
Concerned primarily with haptic rather than visual appeal, Miles chose to leave the works in their natural colours, which is probably why on my visit to the exhibition I was instantly attracted to the purples of Hidden Essence, the only large area of saturated colour amongst the browns, creams, beiges and blacks. Mounted behind glass, this abstract work was completely inaccessible to all but the sighted, which raised for me the questions of what was hidden and from whom. My immediate preference for this work prompted me to consider how accustomed I have become to relying on my sense of sight over my other senses. In a companion piece, Essence of Colour, Miles used greys (an essence?) rather than colour. It too was behind glass. Reflected Essence, the third in the series, incorporated glass in the form of a corner mirror. I peered into the mirror and saw myself. Was this how I was supposed to relate to the exhibits? I decided to touch.
Once I closed my eyes and began to feel the works, something happened. Deprived of my sight, my brain fumbled for words to describe the objects. My fingers explored Tentacular Duosphere, an arrangement of steel balls covered with magnet-filled rubber polyps. I rearranged the polyps with my now-clumsy hands, and a voice came from somewhere: was it mine? ...smooth, bumpy...
Gaining confidence, I moved on to C Gelee (2), a ceramic jellyfish with metal tendrils which sounded like wind chimes . ... cool, cold, smooth but bumpy. Marmoros Luminosis, a hollow coral-like structure inlaid with marbles
...warm, feels all spiky... and Tinkle Tinkle Echino Aster:..starfish and anemone ...spiky, bumpy... pick it up and shake it. I bravely stuck my hand inside Clamosaurus to snatch one of the pieces of …cool, smooth... marble and only just managed to restrain myself from clambering onto the huge polystyrene polyp thing entitled Coralcline. Enticing as a bean bag, but ... hard.
I poured water through Sound Shell II, a stylised conch shell sculpted from hebel block, and could hear the 'sounds of the shore at low tide' ...drying, popping, whispering sound... The intriguing smells emanating from the Texture
Tail Trail prompted me to touch the small natural objects contained within.
Shortly I began to notice that children were beginning to drift in one by one. 'Don't touch', parents chided. This is an art gallery. People mustn't touch. Nina Schonfeldt, the Education Officer at the time, eventually rounded the children into a huddle on the floor and introduced the idea of touch. She told them they could touch anything in the exhibition. She talked about the other senses: 'Try to imagine how a jellyfish might taste, or a sea slug.'
The exhibits provided by Miles were not only appealing to children but also encouraged an integration of the different senses. The large scale Sound Shell installation resembled nothing so much as an indoor playground. Again, interaction with the various elements was encouraged. Sound Shell incorporated numerous items to hit, bang and rattle, and the children set to with gusto. What a racket! Eventually Nina announced that the children were going to make some artwork of their own, and with some last minute clanging they all trooped out, leaving just a few tentacles and tin cans in motion. Silence settled over the gallery space once more, but something had changed. Like so many other adults supposedly in command of a full range of sensory capabilities, I really had no idea of the potential of this show until I observed the children experiencing it, making use of senses which might eventually become dulled through neglect.