Lenka Clayton’s artistic practice re-presents the history of art by making work in response to iconic themes and archetypes throughout the course of visual culture. In her current exhibition, Object Temporarily Removed, at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, Clayton collaboratively created a unique series of artworks called, Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind (2017), in dialog with Brancusi’s Sculpture for the Blind (1920). Brancusi’s marble sculpture is an epitome of his abstract works of art. Its oval form and smooth surface make associations to the shape and texture of the human head, as well as an egg. There are no facial features carved into the artwork, unlike his earlier sculpture, Sleeping Muse (1909), which has a similar oval form and sleek texture. Therefore, Sculpture for the Blind can be interpreted as a primordial life form or the beginning of something that will spring to life. Like most of Brancusi’s sculpture, it represents a streamlined and stylized essence of the subject or figure he intended to depict. When initially displayed, it was different from most modern sculpture of the time, because it was placed inside of a bag so that the viewer would have to access and interpret the artwork by touch (see: Dent, 2016).
Sculpture for the Blind is a highlight of the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art’s collection, however, its current method of display makes it completely inaccessible to visually impaired individuals. The museum’s exhibition of the piece is paradoxical in that the only way a visitor can access it is through sight. The tactile nature of Brancusi’s sculpture makes it incredibly beneficial for blind individuals to envision its unique form and material through touch, yet the museum would not agree to let Clayton use this piece to have a critical discourse and embodied learning experience with a group of local blind art enthusiasts. Therefore, Clayton decided to put art making tools and materials in the hands of visually impaired individuals and described the piece in great detail so that they could create their own versions that are similar in essence to Brancusi’s original artwork. In addition to auditory instructions, she produced a braille translation describing Brancusi’s Sculpture for the Blind. Clayton’s artful response to Brancusi’s work of art, honors his initial desire for the work to be handled by the public. Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind espouses the idea of a social sculpture, which is a term created by artist and educator, Joseph Beuys, to embody his understanding of art’s potential to transform society and enable active aesthetic participation from both trained artists and those without any prior formal artistic background.
Through both social interaction and studio time, visually impaired individuals can relate haptic information to their experiences and connect essential qualities to these experiences that are necessary for learning. Asking engaging questions; passionately describing aesthetic qualities by incorporating a wide variety of sensory images; and encouraging individuals to express themselves by forming habits of artistic learning will give a wide range of individuals the confidence and joy that art should contribute to their lives.
Mitchell (2005) asserts that there are no uniquely visual media even in the most obviously arguable instance of a painting. This might come as a shock to an art theorist, especially one devoted to modernist ideologies. He argues that painting is associated with language and the act of painting is not purely visual at all, in fact he states, “seeing painting is seeing touching, seeing the hand gestures of the artist, which is why we are so rigorously prohibited from actually touching the canvas” (Mitchell, 2005, p. 258). Sculpture is arguably the most tactile of all artistic mediums, so it is not as shocking to understand and experience how sculpture can be experienced in ways other than sight. Because sculpture is three-dimensional, it has the affordances of occupying the same physical space as we do so by its nature, it seemingly welcomes haptic interaction. While many galleries and museums would be aghast to letting visitors touch priceless works of art, it is also a disservice to deny someone the experience of great art.
Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind dispels the myth that the artistic experience for the sighted is far more extensive than it is for a visually impaired individual. Renowned art educator and theorist Viktor Lowenfeld published a seminal book in 1939 called The Nature of Creative Activity, which was based upon his fifteen years teaching art to blind and visually impaired students in Vienna. Lowenfeld (1939) proposed that creativeness and symbolic expression goes beyond sight using other sensory perceptions like touch. He stated that there are two types of creative activity “visual” and “haptic.” Visual is a result of what is seen, while haptic is formed through physical interaction as well as through making value judgments. His work with the blind became the basis for the totality of his breakthroughs in art education. Castellano (1996) says that there is a certain bias that sighted individuals have about the blind. She says that as educators we should set high expectations for visually impaired students to succeed at the same level as sighted students. This statement is also pertinent to Bird (1991), who says that given the proper tools and situations we can all understand art. She quotes psychologist John Kennedy who said, “Blind people are intuitively capable of understanding the visual world, even without training or education.” Kennedy’s research and work with blind students has shown that visual impairment does not hinder the appreciation, understanding, and creation of symbolic imagery.
Clayton’s Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind is a great example of collaborative learning and inquiry based learning, which supports Kennedy and Mitchell’s statements that sight is not a precursor to understanding or creating works of visual art. By utilizing instructional scaffolding and differentiated learning, Clayton made the implicit and sacred knowledge of art an explicit learning experience for blind and visually impaired individuals.
Lenka Clayton’s Object Temporarily Removed will be on view at the Fabric Workshop and Museum through July 9, 2017.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Bird, K. (1991). The Possibilities of Art Education for the Blind. Future Reflections, 10 (3). Retrieved from https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/fr/fr10/issue3/f100325.html
Castellano, C. (1996). The Blind Child in the Regular Elementary Classroom. Future Reflections, 15 (3). Retrieved from https://nfb.org/Images/nfb/Publications/fr/fr15/Issue3/f150302.html
Dent, Peter, ed. (2016), Sculpture and Touch. Oxfordshire: Taylor & Francis. pg 110.
Mitchell, W.J. (2005). There Are No Visual Media. Journal of Visual Culture, 4 (2).
Lowenfeld, V. (1939). The Nature of Creative Activity. New York, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.