Tactile Resonance in Art
Materiality concerns the relationship between humans and the physical world (Rogan, 2011). Furthermore, it can be seen as the relationship between the subject and the object. In this study I explore the relationship between materiality and material-based art through an art project that included making a ceramic work titled ‘Arctic Border’ (Berg, 2011) [2-7]. This title refers to being situated in a borderland between the known and the unknown. ‘Arctic Border’ was created together with nurses working in a ward for elderly patients in a mental health care facility. The purpose was to create new spaces for communication through participatory art processes (Berg, 2010) and art dialogues (Ingeberg, Wikström, & Berg, 2012). During the form development discussion, a nurse moved her hand, touching attentively the object along an edge, and we found that with an edge, one would encounter a boundary, or a change which could cause a disruption of thoughts. I made a series of forms, and the largest size (43 cm × 42 cm × 16 cm) was made to enable more people to touch the object simultaneously. Similar artworks we placed in the hospital environment . We documented how people moved these forms around and how the objects began to ‘live their own lives’ in the health care system.
To compose the material surface of the art objects I used a technique with coloured porcelain painted, cut and processed in plaster moulds . The drawings on the surface I developed by using graphic etching techniques. The material surface was composed of shades of white bone china and zinc white in various metallic lines of cobalt blue, iron red and copper green.
The artistic exploration I documented through step-by-step processes to communicate the results, where the results were not limited to the final art object but allowed for the whole artistic process to be communicated, as recommended in research through the arts (Frayling, 1993, p. 5). Indications of the definitions of material-based art emerged from this idea as well as research into the artistic use of materials and practice-led research (Nimkulrat, 2009b p. 34) and artistic space manipulation in museums including the making of glass art objects (Turpeinen, 2006, p. 117). These were studies about experiments with materials and how they could have meaningful significance (Nimkulrat, 2009b, p. 214). In a report on this new emerging field of artistic research, few definitions or first principles were enhanced (Wilson & van Ruiten, 2013, p. IV) and instead artistic practice was documented in various ways. This can be seen as a standpoint that is in line with a qualitative research tradition where central concepts can be defined just as well through examples and case studies (Yin, 2009) as through rules or explicit definitions. This study is a part of my doctoral thesis on how participation can contribute to material based art, where I performed case studies through participatory observation by making art for a chapel of rest, a school entrance and a hospital corridor (Berg, 2014). This approach take artistic research into new paths (Dynna, 2012).
Connecting people, political plans and physical surroundings
The understanding of materiality can be expanded by research into material-based art. According to Mäkelä and Latva-Somppi (2011), material-based art, such as textile, ceramic and glass art, has traditionally been related to handicrafts and tacit knowledge (p. 43). They exemplify how material-based art has gained increasing significance in the contemporary art field in recent years. Traditional handicraft skills and the concepts of usability and decoration are still often used together with what were once often considered to be fine art competencies, such as expression, aesthetics, conceptuality and interpretation. Further, they suggest that material-based art today has less potential functionality, and instead emphasizes contextual aspects with experimentation, conceptualization and narrative elements . They describe their material-based art as materialized narrations in which the act of crafting expresses the ideas of time and labour  (Mäkelä & Latva-Somppi, 2011, p. 53). There is meaning in material-based art derived from its physical and social contexts, but what is important in this study is the exploration of materiality and how meaning can be created between humans and their physical surroundings through a participatory process in the material-based art influenced by the social context. The meaning of the context in material-based art has to some extent been studied previously from an insider artistic perspective in explorations of art objects installed in galleries (Nimkulrat, 2009b, p. 222) and the spatial construction of exhibitions in museums in Finland (Turpeinen, 2006, p. 117), but not in Norwegian public institutions, such as a church, school or hospital.
Materiality is reflected in the relationship between the public and the art. In this study, public art is defined as art in a public space with a site specific orientation, similar to how it was described by the art coordinator Tuula Isohanni, who explored how site specific public art can be in dialogue with, but also question, the urban development in the area Arabianranta (Isohanni, 2008, p. 1). Her approach involved studying how art projects could bring to the fore local differences and uniqueness, and whether local stories could be brought to life to enrich new local communities. The art works we created in this study differ slightly from such site specific art, as they relate more directly to the people on site as practitioners and users of the space. The art works in this study also differ slightly from material-based art examples (Nimkulrat, 2009b, p. 222; Turpeinen, 2006, p. 117; Mäkelä & Latva-Somppi, 2011, p. 43) in that they relate more to people, culture and context in a particular physical space. The public space in this study is primarily a hospital. A case study in a real life context is marked by overlapping phenomena and indistinct borders (Yin, 2009, p. 18). Therefore, public spaces also include people, organizations and political plans that are activated by the participatory process in the institution. The public spaces where we physically installed the art works also included people’s practice and social interactions. Similar to the indistict borders that signify the case study method, the artistic concepts that include physical art works in the institution have been expanded into a wider public space through art exhibitions and theoretical publications, like the examples mentioned in material-based art and public art.
Part of the idea for the art project in the hospital came from the nurses, as they stated that if it was a large form, more people would be allowed to touch it at the same time, and new types of communication could emerge. Hence, I made white and blue forms with various surface compositions (Berg, 2010, 2011, 2012) [1-7, 10-18]. During participatory observation at the hospital a patient stated while looking at a ceramic image we had placed on the wall:
‘…I can see a cave, and there is a woman inside. There is a man outside on his knees. I like abstract images. I also like to look at clouds, and to see how they change. I always see different motifs and they are changing all the time. When I was a child I lay on the grass gazing upwards, seeing the clouds flying across the sky. Then I saw all sorts of things…I saw a kind of horse, or a sheep…’
This comment inspired me to make cloud motifs on the surfaces of some artworks, ‘White Cloud’ and ‘Cloud Systems’ [10-17]. These larger sizes were in opposition to some smaller forms that could only be held and touched by people one at a time. However, if there was an art work large enough for two or more people to touch, then it would generate more or another type of communication, according to the nurses. Ultimately, we thought that it would definitely create a different situation for dialogue in the light therapy room  or for a patient walking up and down the white, long hospital corridors.
Where the world’s phenomena intersect
People experience materiality and relate to their surroundings from various perspectives. The study is grounded in artistic research and the study of unique events (Varto, 2009) and aims for gaining a more profound understanding through a hermeneutic and descriptive research approach. In the hermeneutic view of the world, every person has an individual experience of a phenomenon, and because all people are different, they will experience the phenomenon differently. Through description, a person can share an experience, although due to his or her limited understanding, he or she will only be able to describe an experience that is an aspect of the thing itself (Gadamer, 2004, p. 480). It is possible to ask what value a single person’s perspective has in a larger context. Paterson and Zderad (1988) discuss this problem in humanistic nursing and refer to Herman Hesse’s novel ‘Demian’, in which he writes about the uniqueness of each man (p. 69). They use this as their inspiration to describe how the uniqueness of each nurse and all nurses’ individual experiences together can contribute to the development of the field of nursing. They cite Herman Hesse as follows:
‘…every man is more than just himself; he also represents the unique, the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world’s phenomena intersect, only once in this way and never again…’
In a similar way, many artistic research projects that document unique processes in art can contribute to an emerging field of artistic research (Varto, 2009, p. 143). Such a unique perspective represents a worldview that can be connected to research traditions in material culture, where there is no sharp distinction between humans and the environment, and where there is an aim to investigate both the banal and the extraordinary in peoples’ relationship to their environment (Tilley, 2006, p. 70). This also relates to an ecological and sustainable view of the world, where self-realization is an aim in the sense that the self is widened by seeing oneself in others and in the environment, leading to a deepened perception of reality and one’s own self, that is, a deepened realism (Næss, 1986, p. 29). This indistinct border between the subject and the object is particularly relevant for material-based artists, who aim to create elements in the environment as an outward expression of an inner feeling . Isohanni (2008) experienced a similar experience, a feeling of merging the outer landscape and the inner life, and describes it as follows: ‘I strived to remain open to thoughts and encounters within the place… Art coordination is not only about generating results, but also becoming a part of the building process and local artistic activities’ (p. 2).
Human presence in objects
To be in dialogue with the site, both environment and culture can be seen as a sort of resonance. Tactile resonance is one of the issues on materiality I identified in this study. This emerged from the ability to identify a common goal through focus group interviews about material-based art. Together with the participants we established a common artistic goal which strengthened the participatory process. In this reflective situation with several people, the expectations of the artistic solution were presented. The material-based art enabled a sensory presence and contributed to a tactile experience of ideas in relation to the material, that is, a tactile resonance, similar to the success when a designer and a sociologist collaborated to study hospital clothing (Topo & Iltanen-Tähkävuori, 2010, p. 1682), where the designer’s expertise and knowledge contributed to the dialogue with the patients through the use of words and expressions of what actually was the case itself, such as the details of the clothes and the impact that the clothes had on the patients’ self-understanding, self-worth and self-esteem. Such an approach can provide inspiration to a creative process and contribute to a sense of the presence of those who have participated in the final product.
Such sensuous presence in materiality connects to the concept of ‘human presence in objects’ described in relation to traditional Estonian jewellery and crafts (Summatavet, 2005, p. 52), where the feelings, opinions and behaviours connected to the objects are just as important to study as ideas, form and use are. Sensuous presence also connects to the concept of the ‘materialness’ in textile art (Nimkulrat, 2009a, p. 208), where the material is not limited to physical qualities but extends to ‘bodily movements and animated modes of expression’ as a part of the expressive capacity of a creative process . The materialness or the meaning produced by the material quality is exemplified in the study by the coloured surfaces changing the meaning in a context.
Variations of materiality qualities, such as surface colour, evince that the material surface can create a completely different meaning for people, and that the meaning can be adjusted through an understanding of material-based art, materials and material experimentation, but first and foremost the ability to form an integrated composition in the spirit which was revealed in the focus group interview. Material surface qualities, such as colour and texture, from this perspective, cannot be seen as detached from the concept because they give a special meaning to the subject.
A door opener to inner life
The material quality in this case is therefore an integral part of the concept, in line with other non-figurative qualities, such as texture, shape and colour. The ethnoghapher Taussig (2009) reflects on how colour is integrated into a cultural context, and in his search for the ‘sacred colour’, he refers to the colour blue several times (p. 40). He does not see any relation between a colour and a specific value; rather, he sees the colour quality as being connected to each unique situation. Further, he sees colour like no other substance we have ever seen or can imagine, but more like a substance which has no substance, suspending the laws of time and space, manifesting itself in different ways as a ‘polymorphous magical substance’ (Taussig, 2009, p. 41). An example which he uses is the colour blue emerging in the blue linen used in the mummification rituals in Egypt in 2400 B.C (Taussig, 2009, p. 26). In this context, he describes colour as the divine breath that gives life to all creatures; ‘drawing gives shape to all creatures, but colour gives them life’ (Taussig, 2009, p. 22). Another example which he proposes is of the blue that emerges in other forms, like in the artificial Yves Klein ultramarine ‘International Klein Blue’ (IKB); through the acronym, he supposes, the colour blue manifests itself as an anti-romantic colour, a daringly industrial, daringly camp and modern colour. Yet it still comes across as romantic because, after all, ‘nothing is as romantic as being anti-romantic’ (Taussig 2009, p. 42). The sort of blue which he prefers is the natural ultramarine, as it emerges through the blue colours made from the semi-precious stones of lapis lazuli in Afghanistan. He describes how the microscope can reveal that the synthetic ultramarine has homogeneous, round crystals that produce a consistent, all-the-same blue surface. In contrast, the ultramarine of lapis lazuli has large, irregular crystals of varying transparency. These crystals are clustered together with particles of mica, quartz, calcite and pyrite, like a ‘glittering firmament, sparkling like stars within the deep blue’(Taussig, 2009, p. 41). These multi-layering techniques, he continues, were used by artists, such as Vermeer and van Eyck, as a key method for obtaining a crystalline, transparent density that Cezanne called the secret soul of grounds, using alternate layers of opaque colours and transparent varnishes (Taussig, 2009, p. 42).
In various ways, the materiality of art objects enables interplay with the environment. In this study, the material physicality activated the bodily senses and unlocked the memories of the participants. Thus, the creation and materialization of the art objects was related to communication both in art-based research methods and in the hospital practice by contributing to special qualities of the dialogue, like the identified phenomena of sensory presence and tactile resonance. These phenomena helped patients to more being in the moment – an enhanced communicative situation in mental health care. A physiotherapist put it this way to sum up some personal reflections on the experiences from the project:
‘…in the beginning, it was something that was surprising, how some of the patients opened up… that is… began telling stories of family just like that right from the ... with just a series of pictures and stuff… it surprised me that one can stand sharing something on a wall and then suddenly one associate and then tells you about the so-called sensitive things in their family. I am thinking: is it that simple? Why not use art more…if it is a kind of door opener to inner life?...’
Berg, A. (2014) Artistic research in public space: Participation for material-based art. Doctoral Thesis. Aalto University. Helsinki. https://aaltodoc.aalto.fi/handle/123456789/13788
Berg, A. (2010). White cloud (Site specific art installation in a hospital, 24 ceramic images, and 20 ceramic objects, 3rd art work in doctor of art education). In A. Berg, M. H. Ingeberg, & B. M. Wikstrom (Eds.), Research project: Art culture, design and health. Geropsychiatric department, Akershus University Hospital, Skytta.
Berg, A. (2011). Arctic border [Art exhibit]. Casted porcelain, 35 cm × 38 cm × 16 cm. Annual exhibition 2011: National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Museum of Decorative Arts (p. 13): The Norwegian Association of Arts and Crafts.
Berg, A. (2012). White cloud & cloud layers [Art exhibit]. Casted porcelain, 35 cm × 38 cm × 16 cm. Annual exhibition 2011: National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Museum of Decorative Arts (p. 35): The Norwegian Association of Arts and Crafts.
Dynna, C. (2012). Stein på stein i grenseland: kunstforskning på nye veier [Stone on stone in a border region: artistic research into new paths]. [Interview with Arild Berg]. Kunsthåndverk, 32, 16-24.
Gadamer, H.-G. (2004). Truth and method. London: Continuum
Frayling, C. (1993). Research in art and design. Vol. 1. Royal College of Art Research Papers (pp. 1-5). London: Royal College of Art.
Ingeberg, M. H., Wikström, B.-M., & Berg, A. (2012). The essential dialogue: A Norwegian study of art communication in mental health care. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, 50(8), 22–30.
Isohanni, T. (2008). Three steps for integrating art works into a new residential area Arabianranta, Helsinki. Retrieved from http://arts.aalto.fi/fi/services/arabianranta/publications/
Mäkelä, M., & Latva-Somppi, R. (2011). Crafting narratives: Using historical context as a reflective tool. Craft Research Journal, 2(1), 24.
Mäkelä, M., Nimkulrat, N., Nsenga, F., & Dash, D. P. (2011). Editorial: On reflecting and making in artistic research. Journal of Research Practice, 7(1).
Nimkulrat, N. (2009a). Materialness: Expressive qualities of a physical material in textile design creativity. Paper presented at the IASDR 2009, Seoul: Korea Society of Design Science.
Nimkulrat, N. (2009b). Paperness in Finnish textile art. University of Industrial Arts, Helsinki.
Paterson, J. G., & Zderad, L. T. (1988). Humanistic nursing. New York, NY: National League for Nursing.
Summatavet, K. (2005). Folk tradition and artistic inspiration: A woman’s life in traditional Estonian jewelry and crafts as told by Anne and Roosi. Helsinki: University of Art and Design Helsinki.
Yin, R. K. (2009). Case study research: Design and methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Taussig, M. (2009). What color is the sacred? Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Tilley, C. Y. (2006). Objectification. In C. Y. Tilley, (Ed.), Handbook of material culture. London: SAGE.
Topo, P., & Iltanen-Tähkävuori, S. (2010). Scripting patienthood with patient clothing. Social Science & Medicine, 70(11), 7.
Turpeinen, O. (2006). The interplay of art and research. In M. Mäkelä & S. Routarinne, The Art of research: Research practices in art and design (Vol. A 73). Helsinki: University of Industrial Arts.
Varto, J. (2009). Basics of artistic research. Ontological, epistemological and historical justifications (E. Lehtinen & L. Mänki, Trans.). Helsinki: University of Art and Design Helsinki.
Wilson, M., & van Ruiten, S. (Eds.). (2013). SHARE handbook of artistic research education.Amsterdam: The European League of Institutes of the Arts, ELIA.
Acknowledgement: Thanks to Sigrid Haugen and Vibeke Sjøvoll for video contributions.