Book Library Exhibition Space, East Wing, The Courtauld Institute of Art
May 2008 - January 2009

Following the 'Sculpture and Touch' symposium held at the Courtauld Institute of Art in May 2008, this exhibition illustrated and explored different interdisciplinary approaches to the sense of touch. It included works by three contemporary artists who contributed to the symposium: Rosalyn Driscoll, Claude Heath and Michael Petry (including several on show for the first time).  

This small free exhibition was generously funded by the Wellcome Trust and supported by the Research Forum at the Courtauld Institute of Art.  

The exhibition revolved around a deceptively simple question: what role does touch play in our experience of sculpture?

The science of touch extends at least as far back in time as ancient Greece and the writings of Aristotle.  In On the Soul and On sense and sensible objects the philosopher tackled both the nature of each sense and the relationships between them.  He identified touch as fundamental, the only sense present in all animals and the only one that humankind possesses to a superior degree.  He also made the greater claim that ‘there is one sense-faculty, and one paramount sense organ…and this is closely connected with the sense of touch’ (On sleep and waking, II).  This ‘paramount sense organ’, the sensus communis, was responsible for binding the inputs of the individual sense organs into a coherent and intelligible representation.  As the great thirteenth-century Dominican theologian, Thomas Aquinas, put it: “[Touch] is the first and in a way the root and foundation of all senses. ...This power is attributed to the sense of touch not as a proper sense, but because it is the foundation of all senses and the closest to the fontal root of all senses, which is common sense.”  Even now, many of the definitions, concepts and questions raised by Aristotle continue to shape discussion of the senses, but modern experimental psychology is steadily extending and enriching our understanding.  What is commonly referred to as “touch” is a complex combination of the information coming from different receptors, including pressure on the skin and proprioception (which is the feeling of where our muscles and joints are in space).  It is a sensorimotor activity that influences the way that the human brain constructs representations of space.

The idea that the sense of touch might find particular stimulus and pleasure in the medium of sculpture is no less ancient.  No doubt prehistoric figurines were meant to be weighed in the hand, but it is once more in the classical world that the relationship between touch and sculpture emerges as a cultural theme in art and literature.  Perhaps the richest example is the myth of Pygmalion, the sculptor who fell in love with an ivory statue. In his infatuation, he treated the sculpted figure as though real, kissing, caressing and fondling the unresponsive object of his desire.  These yearnings reach a climax when, through divine intervention, his tactile attentions infuse the dead material with the warmth of life.  In the figure of Pygmalion, the myth embraces both the sculptor’s touch and the touch of the sculptural beholder.  It captures the visceral thrill of shaping and handling.  At the same time, the story gestures towards the more fundamental question of how deeply a world apprehended through touch, differs from one skimmed or scrutinised by the eye, a question that has long puzzled and intrigued scientists, philosophers and artists alike. 

This exhibition explored a select handful of the many facets of the relationship between sculpture and touch, but at its heart lay the work of three contemporary artists, Rosalyn Driscoll, Claude Heath and Michael Petry.  Each engages with touch and tactility in their work, but in strikingly different ways.  Rather than attempting to pre-empt or predict the beholder’s unfolding and embodied response to these pieces, you were invited to see and, more importantly, to feel your way towards your own conclusions.

Curated by Francesca Bacci and Peter Dent


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