Tactile: 12 Concealed Sculptures is the first international visual arts project in the Maltese Islands to involve the visually impaired to an equal level as the rest of the community. One year of ongoing collaborative work culminates in an exhibition intended to never be seen, which brings together the works of Maltese, French, Italian and Japanese sculptors within a space devoid of light.
The Tactile exhibition leaves the audience no other way of truly understanding the artworks than through the sense of touch. By having these sculptures concealed from the naked eye, any preconceived notions of the ‘normal’ process of perceiving visual art exclusively through sight come to be questioned, rendering the experience of visual art a purely tactile one.
Tactile sets out to reveal to those deprived of sight a world that, by its very visual nature, typically excludes them from engaging with it. It also hopes to act as an ‘eye-opener’ for the general public who is being involved in the same act of perceiving and interacting with sculpture through touch. This is intended to bridge the gap between the blind and the sighted, leading to a closer sense of understanding through a common sensory experience.
Tactile is a Valletta 2018 project curated and managed by Jesmond Vassallo in close collaboration with designer Jonathan Galea, with the support of Valletta Design Cluster and EU-Japan Fest. It also sees the involvement of the Commission for the Rights of Persons with Disability, GAVI – Gozo Aid for the Visually Impaired, Malta Society of the Blind, Torball Society of the Blind and Malta Guide Dogs Foundation.
CuratorIt was in 2017 at the SPERO training centre that, together with a small group of visually impaired individuals, I explored form, space and volume in a very similar manner to the reading of Braille. This workshop confirmed that the powerful language of sculpture can communicate most of the inherent visual and conceptual art values to persons whose experience of an artwork does not largely depend on sight.
This proved to be a fundamental inspiration for Tactile. Following various meetings held with Maltese associations representing the visually impaired, I undertook the curatorial aspect of this exhibition. And it is in my role of curator that I have sought to create an exhibition that goes beyond merely conveying a visual aesthetic.
Through my ongoing communication with the visually impaired community, I was able to envision an art experience that not only addresses these individuals, but that actually places them on an equal footing with a sighted exhibition audience. By having all visitors of Tactile interact with the sculptural works blindfolded, the latter are not in any way at an advantage – as is often the case. Instead, everyone is made to engage with the artworks primarily through the sense of touch.
Collaborating with designer and musician Jonathan Galea was instrumental for this project to be able to delve into capacitive touch technology. As visitors walk through the exhibition space and interact with the artworks, the artists can be heard presenting themselves and their work, creating a warm welcome in this dark and hostile space.
While the exhibition is running, we will be recording feedback from visitors to observe similarities across individual art perceptions within this light-deprived setting where sight does not matter. Essentially, Tactile seeks to bring about a shared experience of visual artworks intended to never be seen. It is here, in this space where no one is spared the blindfold, that a sighted person’s impression of a sculpture and the way in which the visually impaired normally experience visual art fundamentally come to mirror each other.
I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to Frans Tirchett, Joseph Stafrace, Kevin Cutajar and Christine Mifsud, without whose constant encouragement the exhibition would not have been possible. While thanking all eleven participating artists who supported me unconditionally in this project, I hope that Tactile helps shed some light on the multi-layered experience of art, particularly on how it bridges the gap between individuals with varied sensory capabilities.
Ultimately, I wish all the exhibition visitors a significant experience that may prove to be as revelatory about our relationship with art as it is about our visceral understanding of one another.
The choice of Maltese and international sculptors was quite an organic and natural one, thanks to a good relationship fostered with all of the participating artists who willingly accepted to collaborate on this unusual event.
When it came to the selection of works, what mattered most of all was that the tactile quality of the exhibits would be explored to its maximum. For this reason, we approached artists working in different materials – Carrara marble, stoneware/ceramics, welded metal, blown glass, wood, bronze and plaster of Paris, among others. All these media show different tactile properties, textures and temperatures when handled through touch, making each work communicate different sensations to those interacting with it.
Some of the participating artists decided to produce a new piece specifically intended for Tactile, while others opted to present an earlier work. In both cases, all the exhibits were selected in view of their overt tactile qualities, in addition to their aesthetic values.
Tactile: 12 Concealed Sculptures challenges the normal channels of perceiving a work of art. In this respect, the project is an experiment in art perception which sees the senses of hearing, smell and mostly touch as the main protagonists in this exhibition. These will also serve as essential tools for visitors as they seek to enter into dialogue with the exhibited works.