Haptic happenings at the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts
“Hug me” said the Henry Moore sculpture “run your hands up and down my back; feel my strength, feel the essence of motherly love.”
No, I hadn’t suddenly come across a talking sculpture, although no doubt such things exist. Instead, I was at the Sainsbury Art Centre in Norwich, on the occasion of the Centre’s 50th anniversary. It’s a formidable collection of over 2000 diverse works – but more about that later. I was there to experience the innovations that gallery director Jago Cooper has introduced, designed to improve – or even revolutionise – the way visitors experience an art collection.
Using the Smartify app, I instructed by Cooper to approach Moore’s Mother and Child, and “get really close up to this sculpture; look at the face of the mother. And then I want you to close your eyes and try as best you can to remember your earliest memory of being held yourself.”
To Cooper, an art collection is not simply a hoard of diverse valuables locked in cases and appropriately labelled with a specific – often linear and chronological – pathway. Instead a collection gathers together living artefacts and each visitor must make their own relationship with them. Of course, this doesn’t mean he believes artworks to be sentient. But, as Cooper explains, “every one of us has this unique aspect of humanity within us; people give it different names: soul, spirit, life force. It’s that internal voice of self-reflective thought.” He goes on, “I believe that great artists can channel an aspect of that human soul and physically materialise that life force within an artwork. At that moment of creation the art becomes animate; it is alive and needs to be understood as such.”*
When you meet art then, Cooper exhorts the visitor to try and meet it “much more like you would another person than you would an inanimate object. Art isn’t a set of symbols to be read; it’s an emotional state of mind to get into. If you can access that emotional connection, then you can release the power of this living entity. “
Of course there are many times that I have hugged or caressed a Henry Moore, usually in a sculpture park, and have also much more sneakily caressed the Hellenic sculptures in the British Museum and elsewhere under the radar of the watchful security guards. Because I understood the sheer pleasure of doing so, I responded immediately to Cooper’s invitation. Still, the director was clear that some works will never be put out for haptic experience simply because they are too fragile.
Above, Egyptologial artifacts from the Permanent collection: a Fayuum funeral portrait; a collection of tomb objects and a hippopotamus which I desperately wanted to hold in my hand
Cooper’s initiative is part of a new tendency within museum culture to question the ‘Victorian’ set-up of the museum: the church-like space where we reverentially appreciate and stand in awed silence in front of artworks. However, I will say I do have a soft spot for the Victorian arrangement, simply because it means that everybody gets to have their time in front of the artwork without bothering and disturbing everybody else. Hell is, after all, other people. There is almost nothing worse than people shrieking and carrying on in a museum, simply because popular shows are usually pretty crowded. It’s bad enough people taking selfies in front of the work while you’re trying to look at it; if they’re also clutching it and making love to it, this will get old pretty quickly.
Still, there’s something to be said for Cooper’s approach, particularly to the Sainsbury’s own collection, which is somewhat random. The collection includes works from a wide variety of cultures and periods: there is a substantial Egyptology collection (primarily small tomb pieces), Greek and Roman artifacts, Chinese and Japanese works from different eras. Modern art is represented by a glorious Leonora Carrington painting, several Picassos, a Modigliani, and many Francis Bacons. Sadly there are also a few dreadful paintings by deservedly unknown artists – I won’t name them, but if you go you will spot them immediately. The Centre also has an extensive collection of ethnographic art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, with some particularly fascinating artifacts from Mexico.
above: Yinka Shonibare; a traditional mask from West Africa; Thomas Houseago
This all started as a private collection, which explains the randomness and is part of the collection’s charm. But categorizing it, and displaying it in a traditional way, must have been a nightmare. While Cooper’s ideas may seem gimmicky to some, the purpose and aim are serious and laudable. Inviting the visitor to ‘meet’ the art works rather than simply look at them, to form their own relationship with the work, rather than depend on instructions in the form of exhibition cards or a linear pathway, is a great idea.
The Smartify app is available for those who want to use it, although I found that fiddling around with my phone got tiring after a while. Still, I appreciated the app taking me through the collection the first time. Then I put my phone in my pocket and just wandered around and experienced everything, which was great.
Aside from the permanent collection, which is well worth the visit, the centre does have temporary exhibitions and there were two on my visit. Julian Stair: Art, Death and the Afterlife is a collection of ceramics which incorporates the donated ashes of deceased people to commemorate their lives and explore the concept of funerary artefacts.
Powerful Art of the Pacific Northwest
More appealing to me was Empowering Art: Indigenous Creativity and Activism from North America’s Northwest Coast – and it is this exhibition I exhort readers to visit. Unlike the permanent collection, there’s no app or invitation to hug or touch the works, but the works are so powerful that they speak for themselves. They reveal to the viewer, who may not be familiar with the art of the Pacific Northwest, a world of imagery, design, aesthetics, spirituality, tragedy and defiance that most Europeans are unfamiliar with, yet it is accessible and fascinating. It really is a living story. the exhibition takes in cultural artefacts from the history of the peoples of the Pacific Northwest – all kinds of predominantly ceremonial objects of incredible beauty – and then, as the visitor winds their way through the corridor-like gallery, they come into the space of art works by contemporary West Coast aboriginal artists. These are truly fantastic pieces.
I have long admired the work of Marianne Nicolson, a powerful Dzawada’enuxw visual artist I first encountered at an exhibition in New York City a few years ago. Nicolson’s work, “Baxwana’tsi: The Container for Souls,” an illuminated bentwood chest casts patterned shadows onto the surrounding walls. Forms etched onto the sides of the glass bentwood box reference traditional tales, while photographic elements introduce more personal and familial figures and narratives. She creates a completely immersive space where the visitor is contained within the box, within the visual aesthetics of the Dzawada’enuxw people. It s quite a remarkable experience made especially poignant by the fact that embedded within this projection are two hazy photographs of Nicolson’s mother and aunt’s young girls during their time at residential school.**
As a native Canadian artist, Nicholson is an activist and powerful advocate for native land rights and for native voices to be heard. She manages to do this brilliantly through her artwork, which is truly world-class in terms of its skill, aesthetics, meaning, dynamism and impact. Nicolson is an art world superstar – or deserves to be.
Many of the works in the exhibition reconfigure traditional native motifs into forms more recognisable as modern art but also includes portrait photography, installation and video. It is certainly the best exhibition of remarkable Pacific Northwest modern and traditional art I have seen outside North America and I strongly urge you to make the trip to Norwich to see it before 30 July.
* of course Sigmund Freud said something quite similar, but he expressed it differently. Freud said that artists are able to transform their own psychic development and neuroses into art, so that they can make the experience communicable and acceptable to the audience, thus helping them to go through their own psychic processes.
** residential school: an enforced boarding school system set up by the Canadian government and run by churches which endeavoured to modernise and educate generations of aboriginal children. Unfortunately the schools were compulsory, and children were wrenched away from their families and their traditional cultures. The experience was traumatic for many children, and there are still severe questions that must be faced about how the schools were run and how the children were treated
About Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts
The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts is an art gallery and museum located in beautiful grounds on the University of East Anglia campus in Norwich. Designed in the 1970’s by Norman Foster, it houses a collection of world art, including ancient, modern, and ethnographic works initially collected by the Sainsbury family.
In addition to its permanent collection, the Sainsbury Centre hosts a variety of temporary exhibitions throughout the year. The Centre also offers a range of educational programs for children and adults.
The Sainsbury Centre is a popular tourist destination in Norwich. It is open to the public from Tuesday to Sunday, and admission is free. The Centre offers a range of activities for adults, families and children.
Norwich is approximately 2 hours train from London Liverpool St station, the Sainsbury Centre is a 1/2 hour bus ride from the train station, and a slightly shorter taxi journey. So it may not be the most accessible place. St ll, it is set in magnificent grounds with two cafes, so it is a destination day trip during nice weather.
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