Please Do Not Touch
Jane Connory | Designer/Educator/National Head of Communications DIA
As Jane Connory says in her opening sentence the Venice Biennale is a feast for all five senses. However, nine words set inconsistently in a number of typefaces, five in Italian and four in English repeated ad nauseum present a serious inhibitor to one of those senses, touch.
Visiting the 2017 Venice Biennale is a feast for all five senses. Discovering hundreds of contemporary art installations, through the unexpected greenery and eclectic international pavilions of the Giardini, is a treat for the eyes. Hearing throngs of culture vultures echoing through the labyrinth of narrow canals, as they encounter work over the island, is overwhelming. The subtle stench of stagnant water mingling with the bitter aroma of macchiato, stirs the sense of smell. Fresh seafood or gelato, washed down with a Bellini, made from local prosecco, stimulates the tastebuds, but it is the sense of touch that is mostly absent when experiencing this immense and prestigious international art exhibition.
Meandering through the kilometres of work on display, visitors are instructed over and over again to “si prega di non toccare” or to “please do not touch”. This simple but stern instruction is frustrating, to say the least, because it is the rich textures and unique materials within each piece, that screams out to be prodded and poked. You might feel the wetness of ‘high tide’ squelch in your socks but you cannot feel the art. Take for example, the hexagonal pillars of lithium encrusted salt, both short and tall, that form a labyrinth created by Julian Charrière, called Future Fossil Spaces. While walking around the white and grey columns, the texture appears both rough and smooth – begging for fingers to be run along the ridges and layered flat surfaces. But the warning hides behind every turn – “Si prega di non toccare”. You can run your hands over the dusty medieval brick work of the Arsenale, the repurposed ship building yard that also holds many of the Biennale installations, but you cannot run your hands over the art. Sheila Hicks’s Escalade Beyond Chromatic Lands is an expansive wall full of brightly coloured oversized pompoms that tumble to the floor. Their plushness begs to be squeezed or sat on like a welcoming sea of bean bags. But before you can attempt to leap into their snug embrace, a line of “Si prega di non toccare” signs appear like a wrought iron fence stopping the natural impulse to jump.
You can feel the warn impressions of thousands of years of people taking each step up a bell tower’s stair case. You can touch the squeaky black lacquer of a Venetian gondola, feel the stiff paper of your Biennale ticket or the cold metal of the euro coins in your pocket. But visit Damien Hirst’s exhibition of extraordinarily crafted mythical sculptures, in his show titled Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, and your physical feelings will be squashed. One statue in particular, Mermaid, which stands forebodingly on the edge of the Punta della Dogana, staresout across the famous Venice lagoon. Take a moment to experience this majesty from the sculpture’s point of view or risk a sneaky selfie with the work and a stern voice will warn you to “Si prega di non toccare” from several speakers hidden high above. It is scientifically documented that touch is a fundamental human need. It is an important experience in the healthy development of babies and it also helps to form strong relationships within families.
Our nerve endings stretch for 72kms through our skin, making the sense of touch something we feel from head to toe. When prisoners are put in solitary confinement, and denied the sense of touch beyond the four walls of a cell, it can take only a few days before they experience severe and long-lasting mental anguish and physiological harm. To then deny the opportunity to feel what the artist has created, limits the experience of the art. To touch where the artist’s tools and hands have worked gives further insight into the form and aesthetic of the art. To experience the materials and making with all five senses can make the art complete in its ability to transmit and evoke intentions, stories, emotion and interpretations.
Every day over 2,800 people now visit the Biennial during the six months it is open every year and the value of the artworks is certainly priceless. The legacy of the event extends back to 1895 and it has hosted classic and contemporary artists such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Gustav Klimt, Helen Frankenthaler, René Magritte, Rosemarie Trockel and Tracey Emin. One of a kind, the artworks are irreplaceable and priceless as cultural artefacts – of the time and of country that they represent and most certainly to the artists that have made them. The art could indeed suffer from the touch of the Biennale audience, and grow dirty and broken. But would this be a small price to pay to ensure the experience is truly multi-sensory? Could it not inspire and inform a new level of understanding and empathy with the work and open a new dialogue between the artist, the medium and the audience? Could touch be designed into the pieces to ensure durability or to have the decomposition as part of the commentary? Whatever the reality, it still remains the intent of most of the 2017 Venice Biennale to “Si prega di non toccare”.