Art exhibition in KL highlights the value of touch, the intimacy it provides

Kimberley Boudville's installation 'It's Gonna Be Okay' (cotton, denim, fleece fabric, polyester stuffing, 2023). Photo: Balai Seni Maybank

Balai Seni Maybank’s annual “Emerging Women Artist” exhibition this year is designed to explore the nature and intimacy of touch.

Titled The Labyrinths Of Touch, the show at Balai Seni Maybank's gallery in Kuala Lumpur features the work of 12 women artists, including Ain Rahman, Cheong See Min, Hana Zamri, Joanne Loo, Alexdrina Chong (aka Alexoid Luce), Kimberley Boudville, and Sarah Radzi.

At least half the works in exhibition – from installations to art journals to the braille alphabet – have been made with the intention for visitors to interact with them via touch. The show also coincides with the International Women's Day celebrations.

The Labyrinths Of Touch exhibition curator Elizabeth Low's first encounter with touch in a museum context happened while visiting the Uffizi Gallery in Italy, where one of the major attractions of the gallery, the painting The Birth Of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, was made accessible to the public – most importantly to the blind and partially sighted community – through touch.

"This is made possible through a relief marble replica of the artwork that is displayed for the audience to engage with. It was a defining moment of intrigue and newfound awareness that shaped my interests as an emerging curator today," says Low.

Poojitha Menon's interactive installation 'Finding Hope' (acrylic box, metal, glass marbles, saga seed and bamboo mat, 2023). Photo: Balai Seni MaybankPoojitha Menon's interactive installation 'Finding Hope' (acrylic box, metal, glass marbles, saga seed and bamboo mat, 2023). Photo: Balai Seni Maybank

Since then, she has been interested in bringing a multi-sensorial experience into the gallery setting in Malaysia. In part, this has to do with challenging barriers that some might face, be it the visually impaired community, or perhaps individuals with different learning abilities.

"I find that the term 'accessible' is sometimes used very loosely. What does it really mean to say something is accessible? Who is accessible to? These were just some of the questions that had prompted the direction and concept of the curatorial narrative. How can we make an exhibition, that is generally a very vision-centric experience, accessible to people of different needs and abilities?" she questions.

Low considers the "touch the artwork" aspect a vital part of this exhibition because she believes it is a powerful method of bringing people closer to the arts – including people who maybe have not had the opportunity to interact with or simply understand the artwork in a way that they know how to.

"The art world can sometimes appear pretentious and daunting to those who don't regularly engage with the scene. Providing the opportunity to touch and interact with these works allows visitors to connect with the pieces in a more intimate manner," she says.

Low adds that it has been really fulfilling to see the excitement, the curiosity, and the wonder, among many other emotions, experienced by the visitors at Balai Seni Maybank.

Alexdrina Chong's 'I v Me' (boardgame set, ceramic sculptures, 2023). Photo: Balai Seni MaybankAlexdrina Chong's 'I v Me' (boardgame set, ceramic sculptures, 2023). Photo: Balai Seni Maybank

"I believe that touch has memory, and because of that, the interactive element of this exhibition leaves an impression. It is not cold or distant. Some of the works in this show are pretty conceptual, and some might feel wary about that at first glance. Especially if their idea of what art is, is limited to things like portraiture, scenery and still life.

"The opportunity to engage with the exhibition through touch allows the audience to feel included, like they are part of something. Poojitha Menon's Finding Hope has been especially popular. The challenge of finding the red saga seed in the sea of marble seems to spark a sense of determination and excitement in many of our visitors. I hope this exhibition encourages local institutions to consider the development of a national touch collection. It is something that will bring different communities closer to the visual arts industry," she says.

Additionally, with the help of the show’s collaborator In Transit, the artists have had the chance to create audio descriptions that accompany each of their works (these can be accessed through QR codes).

This Saturday (March 18), there will be an artist talk (11am to 1pm) featuring Trina Teoh, Kimberley Boudville, Joanne Loo and Sarah Radzi, moderated by independent curator Sharmin Parameswaran. They will share their experiences in making tactile works and discuss topics such as multisensorial art and how it can bridge certain gaps that concern accessibility.

The Labyrinths Of Touch is on at Balai Seni Maybank (Menara Maybank, Jalan Tun Perak in KL) till March 24. Opening hours: 10am to 5pm from Monday to Friday and Saturday (11am to 4pm). Free admission.

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