Edmund de Waal, detail, Princeton Museum

Continuing with themes inspired by Edmund de Waal in his latest book, The White Road

In a profile of de Waal that appeared in the New York Times, Sam Anderson describes de Waal as an evangelist of touch. “Thinking is through the hands as well as the head,” de Waal has said.

De Waal worries that modern humans are beginning to lose our fluency in touch. He thinks that we live in a world impoverished by a lack of attention to tactility. Our culture has a deeply embedded shame of the body, shame of skin, shame of “mere” sensation—a desire to transcend the animal coarseness of nerves, hair, blood flow. To live in clean, noble abstractions: things that we think will last. All of our digital technology, all of these portable virtual worlds, only make it easier to live in touchlessness. If you put on virtual-reality goggles, there will be plenty to look at and pretend to touch, but nothing to actually feel. But touch, de Waal insists, is fundamental to the human experience. If we can’t fully inhabit and value the world of touchable objects, de Waal told me, then we can’t fully value other human beings.

The power of objects to connect us with our living, breathing bodies and selves is not trivial. Even if we don’t pick up one of de Waal’s fragile vessels, its made by handedness is so essential to its essence. We can see how it came into being, how a human shepherded it into existence, step by step.

Paintings and sculpture may not be designed with the same implicit suggestion of being held in the hand, but they also, like de Waal’s vessels, can claim a very personal, very human etiology. Sarah Sze‘s installation, Timekeeper, currently on view at the Rose Art Museum, speaks to the suggestion of high touch, yet another form of touchability. Meticulously intricate and outrageously eclectic, this signatory Sze creation sits in the center of a very large gallery, whirring and “breathing” as you enter the space. Constructed from torn sheets of paper, photos, mirror shards, text, embedded LEDs, projections, reflections off the surface of water, multilayered mini-scaffolding, Timekeeper speak to how Sze “blurs the line between organic and mechanical structure.”

From the curatorial statement:

Timekeeper has no relationship to the mechanical devices we use to mark the literal passing of time, but instead to the way we recall and replay our lives, in selected fragments that, strung together, account for the passage of years. Timekeeper may not keep the time, but it keeps our time.

While very different in spirit and form from de Waal’s ever growing tribe of tiny pinch pots, Timekeeper feels human-sourced, made by hand. It too claims its place in the celebration of the power of thingness and of touch.

Installation views of Timekeeper by Sarah Sze, at the Rose Art Museum:




3 Replies to “Touchability”

  1. Jill Fineberg says:

    “Thinking is through the hands as well as the head.” I love this quote. It is my reality. As an intuitive bodyworker, I have always said that my fingertips are my eyes. It is where I get my information. I also feel through my feet. I get sensations through both, and trust both to give me information intuitively. I love the white vessels, and marvel at ceramic shapes. When I work on the human body, it always feels like I am working clay, and molding it back to it’s essence. I too worry about humans losing their relationship to tactility, It is essential to our experiencing life fully. Animals know this. Technology challenges this. One day I watched a robin hop around a grassy area in my yard . . . endlessly. I watched for ten minutes, wondering what he was doing. Then suddenly, he jammed his beak into the grass, and pulled out a worm. it was amazing to see. I called my gardener friend and said,”How did he know where to insert his beak all of a sudden?” She said,
    “He could feel the vibration of the worm moving through his feet!” I laughed.
    Can you imagine if human beings had to find their food this way? We would starve!!!! Imagine taking your shoes off at the entrance to the grocery store, and walking barefoot until you “sensed” broccoli!!!!
    Your blog always transports Deborah. Thank you for the time and thought and energy and input you put in each of them.

  2. frederick shiels says:

    This is something New and welcome under my aesthetic Sun. To be clear Deborah, does/can one actually touch the artist’s work? (pardon my ignorance).

  3. I understand the “lack of attention to tactility” and the need to encourage human touch; but for a long time (I’m thinking museums) there has been a no-touch environment surrounding art. How I have wanted to touch, say, a Brancusi sculpture, and the guards keep me away. Some kinds of art invite tactile engagement but perhaps culturally we are still in the not-touch environment?

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