Creativity / Exhibition / History of Art / Participatory Art

Learning to Touch: Caroline Inckle’s ‘Black Swan White Elephant’ at Seventeen, Belmont Street

On Wednesday 8th March, students in Dr. Amy Bryzgel’s Postmodern Art class took a field trip to visit several of Aberdeen’s visual arts spaces, including Seventeen on Belmont Street. The current exhibition in the upstairs gallery is Black Swan White Elephant, by North East-based artist Caroline Inckle.

Inckle’s exhibition takes the form of a giant interactive game, in which everything ‘can be moved or touched’. The artist does not enforce any specific rules, and visitors are encouraged to interact with the pieces however they choose, making up their own rules.

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There are several stations at which the visitor can occupy themselves with activities such as stacking blocks, playing a freeform board game or rearranging large wooden cut-outs on a pole. The pieces are simple, comprising mostly basic geometric shapes and pastel primary colours. These pieces are not complicated to look at, but do have the power to evoke complex reactions.

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Although the artist gives explicit permission to handle the artworks, there is still a certain level of discomfort in doing so. Many members of the class agreed that they felt awkward when faced with the opportunity to form this tactile relationship with the art. Others mentioned that they felt patronised by the works, feeling that the resemblance of Inckle’s work to childhood toys was somewhat condescending.

Why, when we are actively encouraged to physically interact with the artworks, do we still have such trouble doing this? Perhaps feelings of embarrassment brought on by performing ‘childish’ activities in front of others is one reason.

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More likely, however, the ‘no touching’ culture which pervades traditional art institutions is to blame. For centuries, art has been treated as something to be revered and preserved, as something precious which we must not taint by touching. Galleries and museums the world over display signs forbidding their visitors from touching the artworks, even if this was the original intent of the artist. For example, The Henry Moore Institute’s (Leeds, UK) exhibition on Paul Neagu’s palpable sculptures encased many of his tactile works in glass tanks, away from curious hands, despite the works existing for this very reason.

This attitude is ingrained so deeply in our cultural psyche that an open invitation to touch the artworks still does not put us at ease. This is why Inckle’s simple, unassuming structures are the perfect way to encourage this kind of relationship with art.  Despite perhaps feeling patronised by the child-like activities, visitors are performing the same activities carried out by young children when first forging a relationship to the world around them. If we are to do the same, and forge a new, tactile relationship to the world of art, then what better starting point could there be than Inckle’s building blocks?

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Black Swan White Elephant runs until 25th March.

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