“The Human Touch: Making Art, Leaving Traces” is a new temporary exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, with all exhibits and graphic design created by Nissen Richards Studio, in close collaboration with the museum’s curators. The exhibition, which examines how the language of touch shapes and has shaped our existence, will run until August 1, 2021. In a separate commission, Nissen Richards Studio has created a film that will serve as both a trailer and a introduction to the exhibition, explore themes, film key objects and add additional content to link with the exhibition brand.
‘The Human Touch: Making Art, Leaving Traces’ draws on works of art spanning four thousand years across the world and explores the fundamental role of touch in the human experience. The scope of the exhibition ranges from anatomy and skin to the relationship between the brain, the hand and creativity. It also discusses touch in relation to desire and possession, politics and ideology, reverence and iconoclasm. The final section brings together a series of reflections on touch, both historical and contemporary.
Items in the exhibit range from ancient Egyptian limestone carvings to medieval manuscripts and panel paintings – and devotional and spiritual items to love tokens and rings of faith from around the world. Drawings, paintings, prints and sculptures by Raphael, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Carracci, Hogarth, Turner, Rodin, Degas and Kollwitz are re-analyzed and seen alongside works by contemporary artists such as Judy Chicago, Frank Auerbach , Richard Long, the Chapman Brothers, Richard Rawlins, Donald Rodney and others.
Although the exhibit was planned long before the Covid-19 crisis, its timing and relevance to what people went through is particularly relevant. “The events of 2020 made us aware of the preciousness and dangers of touch, making this exploration of our most fundamental sense particularly timely and resonant,” commented a spokesperson for the Fitzwilliam Museum.
The exhibition design uses texture, light and shadow to create an immersive and emotional journey for visitors that amplifies the power of the objects and art on display and emphasizes their narrative. A sense of tactility and craftsmanship were part of the structural design of the exhibit to be more narrative and integral. There is a strong relationship between graphics and 3D shapes to help create a complete sensory and immersive journey for the visitor and to underline the links with the imprints and gestures of the artists whose works are exhibited.
The exhibition structures are made up of self-supporting curved walls, organic and flowing shapes that suggest cupped hands holding information and displays. The walls were designed to bear the signs of their creator and feature hand-applied plaster on the exterior. Graphic information boards, on the other hand, feature a tactile, textured crumpled surface, created using the thin, uncoated paper commonly used for newspapers, which when applied using paste, reproduces the texture of the skin. The introductory film for the exhibition was created by Nissen Richards Studio in collaboration with cinematographer Pete Bateson, to explore the theme of touch and create a sense of tactility.
The exhibition takes place in two large rooms on the first floor of the museum and is organized in eight sequential sections:
This space introduces and immerses visitors in the theme.
Anatomy of touch
Our body is enveloped by the organ of touch, the skin. Touch receptors connected to our nervous system are everywhere, but most densely clustered at our fingertips, allowing us to read tactile writing systems like braille, while our fingerprints, fully formed at birth, are unique. to each individual. This section looks at our hands as instruments of astonishing complexity, looking at how dissection revealed their wonderful anatomy with a design so remarkable that it was considered proof of the existence of the Creator. The artists explore both the complexity of the hand and the sensitivity of the skin, telling its painful stories, both personal and political.
Hands at work
This section of the exhibition examines the abilities of touch, from delicacy to strength, looking at artists and designers who depend on the full range of the abilities of the hand, including strength, flexibility, delicacy. For some artists, the hand is an alternative self-portrait, a more meaningful and expressive statement of intent than the face, while creators may use the hand even more directly, in the form of fingerprints or a nail. incise, or more indirectly, using instruments that the human hand is uniquely equipped to handle – brushes, knives, pens.
This section discusses touch as a way to connect, but also to mark a territory and to signal our presence to others. While touch interactions are crucial for healthy children’s development, comforting and creating lasting bonds, touch can also be negatively experienced and be inappropriate. The section spells out the need for touch, but also the need for consent and the limits of its limits.
Power of touch
The fifth section of the exhibition explores the hand as an interface between the material and spiritual worlds. Tracing the lines of character and fate in the palm of the hand is for some a key to the soul, while touch rituals can unleash the healing powers of spirits, and the hands and their touch can help us through. death, mourning, or in mythology. In the Christian story of the resurrection of Jesus, the human need to touch is laid bare in his encounters with Mary Magdalene and doubting Thomas. When belief falters, touch can convince.
Revere / Destroy
In the penultimate section, the show examines how acts of reverence and protest often depend on touch. Our emotions are revealed in our gestures and the way we treat the objects around us. Devotional actions require thoughtful solemn gentleness, from Buddhist spiritual practice to rosaries, but actions motivated by anger or hatred involve harmful brute force. We erase, knock, scratch and degrade to clearly show our dislike and leave traces for others.
The power is in your hands
Hand outstretched, fist closed; political movements often deploy the symbolic power of the hand. His image evokes protest and the refusal to submit, conveys agency and the desire for self-determination. Tied or chained hands signal enslavement and dehumanization. The outstretched hand supports those in need, transcends divisions and seals the bond between individuals, communities and nations.
This final section looks at the psychology of touching and making a mark or leaving a trace.
Photography: Gareth Gardner