Socially responsible art? It doesn't have to send you to sleep
CULTURE SHOCK:Imma’s attempt to make visual art – and gallery spaces – accessible to people with sensory disabilities relishes the playful pleasures of the artistic process, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE
INSTINCTIVELY, we imagine art to be at its best when it is most free. And, conversely, that it becomes dull and worthy when it tries to be socially responsible. The Altered Images exhibition, which is a collaboration between Mayo and South Tipperary county councils and the Irish Museum of Modern Art and is currently at Imma, seems to fall into the category of irreproachable decency that makes for boring art. Its aim is to explore ways of making visual art – and gallery spaces – accessible to people with sensory disabilities. While few would dispute the justice – even the necessity – of this kind of work, many will approach it expecting that any uplift will be social and moral rather than sensual and aesthetic.
In truth, however, there is no necessary trade-off between social and aesthetic values. Art feeds off fresh perspectives: there is a reason why artists have been disproportionately drawn from ethnic, sexual or cultural minorities. Creativity comes not from finding expression easy but from finding it hard. Richard Brinsley Sheridan wrote that “easy writing makes damn hard reading”: good writers are those for whom language is a constant problem. Philosophers are those who find it hard to think, who keep stubbing their conceptual toes against bumps in the surface of reality that the rest of us glide blithely over. And good visual artists are those who find colour and shape and pattern and space odd and angular and fluid.
The artist, in other words, experiences the world in something like the way a disabled person does: he or she cannot take it for granted but is forced to navigate a way through it. The artist, like the person with sensory disabilities or limited mobility, cannot take physical realities for granted but is constantly arrested by them. And both groups have to use the same essential tool: translation. Artists use the languages of form to express thoughts, feelings, desires. People with disabilities translate information from one sense to the other, from the aural to the visual in sign language, for instance, or from the visual to the tactile in Braille.
It is this notion of translation that makes the Altered Images exhibition so fascinating even for those who are not (yet) disabled. If you start thinking about how to make works of art accessible to people with different kinds of sensory impairments or limited mobility, you can begin to transform these negatives into something positive: the fluidity of the senses. Strong visual art, after all, often evokes in the viewer a milder version of synaesthesia, the psychological condition in which the stimulation of one sense leads to an involuntary sensation relating to a different sensory or cognitive mechanism. Music can make us “see” and two-dimensional paintings can make us “touch”. Altered Images simply makes this process explicit.
The exhibition is chosen from the three institutions’ collections of contemporary art. This makes sense because so much contemporary art practice is already highly self-conscious in its concerns with representation and with the fluidity of images in the era of easy reproduction and manipulation.
Caroline McCarthy’s delicious photograph The Luncheonis a prime example. It looks at first like a conventional still life of tastefully arranged fruits and vegetables. On closer scrutiny the objects in the picture turn out to be made from “wet toilet paper, black bin-bags, real stalks, fake flies and disposable tableware”. Likewise, Abigail O’Brien’s clever Last Supperplays on the shift between two-dimensional and three-dimensional representation, giving us a series of stylised photographs of a bride laying the table for a wedding feast behind an actual table in the process of being laid for dinner. In both cases the artist is interpreting or translating pre-existing images, 17th-century still lives in McCarthy’s case, Leonardo’s Last Supper in O’Brien’s.
How do you make these works accessible to someone who is visually impaired? You simply continue this process of translation and of playing with the image. The works are aurally described by Anne Hornsby. They are also, quite delightfully, translated into tactile sculptures by Loz Simpson. Simpson’s three-dimensional models of the artworks invert the usual convention of the gallery: look but don’t touch. You can touch even if you are not in a position to look.
The show has two specially commissioned pieces that reflect on this whole process of shifting senses and forms. In Daphne Wright’s film Plura the camera tracks over an 18th-century classical sculpture of male and female bodies, which are never fully revealed. A soundtrack of the voices of an elderly women and man sets up tensions between what is seen and what is heard, and between different kinds of disembodiment. Amanda Coogan’s film Seven Steps presents her own interpretation of the other works in sign language. In both cases the artist is clearly stimulated rather than inhibited by the challenge of at least attempting to find a language that is not dependent on any one of the human senses. It would be claiming too much to say that they (or anyone else) can ever transcend specific sensual experiences, but the idea of looking for a universal language that can communicate to everyone, regardless of disability, is as aesthetically provocative as it is socially decent.
This is what makes Altered Images one of the most successful enterprises of its kind that we’ve seen in Ireland. It takes on the idea of inclusion not with a heavy sense of duty but with relish and invention. It fuses the civilised notion that a national cultural institution like Imma needs to think about how it serves all kinds of citizens with the playful pleasures of the artistic process itself. At a time when issues of access are in danger of being seen as luxuries for more bountiful times, it reminds us that doing the right thing can sometimes be a lot of fun.