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Lee’s Stories

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posted on September 18, 2016 | Sculpture and Art
Made to be touched

An Experiment
in Social Engineering

In May and June 2009,
Matt Petley-Jones and I
held a joint exhibition in his gallery in
Vancouver.  Since my work occupies floors
and his occupies walls, we were beautifully
matched.  Each painting was inspired in
some way by the sculptures – – some-
times through colour, sometimes
form, and sometimes just a
feeling.  He did a
good job of it.

I had noticed in
other exhibitions that visitors
are typically careful not to touch works
of art. Not only that, but they go out of their way
to be seen not to touch them (I hold my hands
behind my back to examine anything closely).
It is a good thing in general for visitors not
to touch artworks, but it’s not neces-
sarily so and it certainly
 for me.

Six of eleven sculptures
were granite, for example, which is
hard enough to resist scratching by anything
but diamond rings.  Four more were other hard
stone, and there were two bronzes. Some were
touchable with abandon, some only care-
fully touchable, and some not
touchable at all.

We hung posters
featuring sculptures on adjacent
walls, using words and images to convey
my thoughts, concerns, and wishes about touching
each sculpture.  Since the sculptures were right there
to refer to, I used images made with non-ordinary
light sources such as lasers, light conducted
through translucent stone, and Photo-
shop effects to emphasize messages
carried in the text.

Promotions in
newspapers and radio invited
visitors to touch, and I said so directly
in a CBC Radio interview. During the week
before the opening, I published a series of those
posters in the
Vancouver Observer, together with
a  story about each of them. Here I’ve expanded
on that theme by casting posters into a common
design, abstracting snippets of their texts as
titles, and including images of sculptures
under studio lighting conditions.

In the exhibition,
I wanted people to explore
six sculptures with their fingers and spin
four of them on their bases. One rotating one,

Torso in Motionabove, weighed almost 200
pounds with its base.  It was on a low plinth
and was perfectly balanced on a Lazy
Susan, and any child tall enough
to touch its base could
rotate it.

I wanted visitors to actively explore
the sculptures in that group
with their bodies.

I also wanted
them to touch four other
sculptures, but more gently and
mindfully and with less abandon. A calcite
piece could break or scratch, but I wanted them
to turn it in the light. A large bronze piece rotated
but could scratch, so they needed to rotate it by its base,
not by the sculpture itself.  A large granite sculpture was
covered in barnacles from the beach, which were sharp
enough to damage skin and could be dislodged by jarring.
A small granite sculpture could have been knocked off
its plinth.  I wanted people to touch these sculptures
too, but only in particular ways and from
particular perspectives.

Five sculptures to touch with abandon.anima4-poster flameposteropeningpostermeditposterlistenblurb


Two other
were strictly
off limits to touching.

The obsidian bird
was brittle and could break and the small
bronze valentine could scratch or
be knocked over.

In the main,
this experiment in social
engineering worked.  Visitors behaved
as expected with the categories of sculptures.
They touched Touch Me ones more than normal
and Don’t Touch Me less, which was  our objective.
Many visitors considered the posters pieces of art in
their own right and not just signage.  Some read all
the posters first, then spent time with the pieces.
Next time I  would craft the messages more
carefully and make framed, exhibition
quality posters.

Though visitors
followed posters’ instructions,
they were more conservative than they
needed to be with Touch Me sculptures. They
almost always cautioned their children about turning
the big, low, heavy, spinny one, for example. Perhaps
the most gratifying thing of all is that children never
seemed to forget they were turning something
interesting and beautiful as well as fun. Even
older children never spun it fast, though
they obviously wanted to!

By far the most interesting
type of conservatism was a reluctance by
men and women to explore sensuous curvatures
. Clearly, they held back.  I don’t know how
many times I approached individuals whose tentative
touching could tell them only about texture
and nothing about form, and quietly
said something like this:

“Would I be wrong to guess
that you’re holding back?  You look
like you really want to explore Heart of Anima
but resist that impulse.
Please believe me when I say I
want you to explore my sculptures.  That particular
is basalt and you can’t scratch it. 
It’s heavy enough to
be stable, it rotates like a top, and the worst thing
that could happen is that you’d swoon while
you hugged it and you’d both
hit the
Seriously, though,
be my guest.”

No one denied my
guesses, though I never tried
it unless I was pretty sure it was
true and the visitor would be receptive
to my advance.  Some people who accepted
the challenge were too embarrassed to get
very far into it, but it was wonderful to
see them loosen up and feel the forms
physically, with their bodies, even
if they didn’t touch them.

Two sales
came directly
out of experiences
like that.

From the top, the sculptures
whose posters are included here are
Anima IV
Eternal Flame
Listening to the Wind
Night Bird
In Love and Soaring

First published as separate posters in the Vancouver Observer.

Edited March 2021

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