Reach Out and Touch Me, The Art of Intimacy




The breath-taking mural by Gearoid O’Dea. The street-facing side is made of material that degrades with the weather, creating an ever-changing portrait. Photo: Peter McNamara

By Peter McNamara

What is intimacy, and can it be quantified, optimised, or commodified? Will technology compromise the future of human connection, or bring us all together in new and exciting ways?

Intimacy is the name and subject of a brand-new exhibition at the Science Gallery on Pearse Street. On show are a host of daring, heart-warming, and outright beautiful pieces and installations, produced by Irish and international artists. Nearly everything is interactive in some way, and many ride a curious overlap between art and science.

The exhibition was officially opened on October 19th with a packed-out launch event. As sizeable as the Pearse Street gallery is, many were turned away. Upon entering I was greeted by a staff member and kindly asked, ‘Would you like to be touched?’

The young man held out a large red sticker with the words ‘Please Touch’ written across it. For the sake of this article, I replied in the affirmative and placed the sticker on my chest. ‘Would you like me to touch you soft, medium, or hard?’ Daring as I might be, dear reader, I opted for the middle of the road, and felt the touch of his long delicate fingers land medium-ly on my right pectoral.

There was a spirit of play and excitement that evening. Nearly every gallery-goer wore a red ‘Please Touch’ sticker somewhere on their body. Some wore several, and in places that, even with such written authorisation, it would take a measure of courage for one to reach out and discover. The crowd was made up of young and old, and in every corner, every other moment, there came a fresh titter of nervous laughter. 

The exhibitions at Intimacy each seem designed to push the viewer out of their comfort zone, to make them reconsider what it means to be close to another person and to dare them to engage with a stranger. Thankfully, each of the various experiences on offer are as fun as they are revealing.

Hello Machine

Take the Hello Machine. In the middle of the ground floor, a black rotary phone sits upon a yellow plinth. Pick up the receiver and you’ll immediately hear a dial tone: this phone is connected with galleries in Vienna, in Australia, and in Prague: somewhere, in an exhibition venue many miles away, an identical Hello Machine will suddenly begin to ring.

When I picked up the Hello Machine, a stranger did answer. I ended up speaking with a woman visiting a gallery in Perth. After some moments of scrambling for conversation titbits, we ended up having a warm chat about an Australian friend of mine. It was exactly the kind of unlikely, technologically driven, but no less meaningful encounters on offer at this exhibition.

The Hello Machine project is the brainchild of Australian artist Rachel Hanlon. These phones are situated in galleries across the globe, in ever-changing locations and time-zones. To date over 20,000 calls have been made on them. You never know who might be on the end of the line if you go down to Pearse Street and pick it up.

Emotion Capture

Adjacent on the gallery floor is the mesmerising Emotion Capture, by Arthur Gouillart. At first glance, this seems a simple exhibition of ornate, origami-like sculptures, each a few inches tall and painted different colours. They are arrayed in a long glass case. Above is a TV screen, playing an incongruous video of some kind of 3D animation process, intercut with footage of couples embracing.

It takes a Frenchman. What is actually on display are 3D sculptures of the patterns created by the movement of kissing tongues.

Gouillart placed a special tongue-sensor headset on his volunteer couples and tracked their sensual movements to the most precise vector and co-ordinate. He sought to create a “tangible sculpture” of “intimate moments shared.” These abstract shapes are quite beautiful. Their sweeps and arcs are reminiscent of the flight of a small bird or butterfly, or the petals and folds of a flower.

It’s strange to think of the tenderness that created such shapes, and how this fleeting exchange endures in these forms, for anyone to see. You can commission your own kissing model by contacting the artist. That said, it might be unwise to give away your technique.

Pillow Talk and Missed Connections

Also on the ground floor is Pillow Talk, a kind of heartbeat walkie-talkie, by British artist Joanna Montgomery. The pillow is fitted with a gentle motor, that pulses with the heartbeat rhythm of whoever is using the pillow which it is paired with. The obvious application is for long-distance couples, but Pillow Talk is also being used for premature babies, to more closely connect mother and child during the incubation period.

Covering one wall is the Missed Connections noticeboard, devised by the gallery itself. Have you ever met someone, felt a spark, and then for some reason never managed to find them again? Is there a secret you’ve been dying to share, or something else that you’ve never had the courage to say?

Visitors to the Intimacy show are invited to write their own note and pin it to this large cork board. Some choose to write anonymously, others leave an email address. People seek out that person they met on the train, but never saw again. They ask for love, or simply friendship, from anyone who might share their interests. One woman cried out for a long-lost son. It seems people have much to say, and are glad of a platform in which to say it. There is a thirst for inter-personal intimacy.

A Face to Meet the Faces

Walking upstairs, one gets a proper view of the huge mural installed by Irish artist Gearoid O’Dea, upon the windows of the Science Gallery. In this quite scientific exhibition, To Prepare a Face to Meet the Faces is the most purely artistic work.

The mural is a striking thing to encounter, spanning almost two floors in length. It’s a sort of abstract self-portrait. We see the white silhouetted shape of the artist, but within are vivid organic forms. It’s as if this person’s internal organs have been replaced by flowers, fruits, and other strange forms. The mural is an enlargement of an exquisite hand-crafted piece. While there seems a disconnect between the internal images and the silhouette around them, the quality of O’Dea’s illustration conveys a visceral feeling. True to the title of the show, it creates a sense of intimacy. We feel before we understand.

What’s more the piece is double-sided. The image on the street-facing side is itself hidden under a layer of biodegradable material, which is fixed to the outer window. The biodegradable layer shows a realistic portrait of the artist. As this material wears away, another chaotic self-portrait comes into view, “a twisted variation of the original.” According to the artist, “it’s about removing a mask.”

Since the opening of the exhibition that outer-layer has begun wearing away. New elements of the picture can be seen every day from outside the gallery on Pearse Street.

The Machine to Be Another

On the first floor, behind an encircling curtain, is The Machine to Be Another, by the international Be Another Lab. This is an “embodied virtual reality system,” that allows visitors to experience the world “through the eyes and body of another.”

You sit in the circular space with another person. Each of you wears a VR headset that also features a camera; the camera from your headset is fed into the one opposite, and vice versa.

To put it simply, you see the world from the perspective of the person in front of you. If both people match where they are looking and how they are moving, the brain can really be tricked. If you look at them while they look at you, you see yourself from the camera on their VR headset. If your opposite number looks down at their hands at the same moment you do, their palms and fingers really appear to be your own.

As curious as it might be to swap from a male to female body, or between yourself and a friend, the Be Another Lab has a wider intention. Their long-term research “aims to promote empathy among individuals of different social, cultural and ideological contexts.” It has been used to address issues like cultural bias, immigration, generational bonding, and conflict resolution in more than 20 countries. People have been swapped with asylum seekers, with the differently abled, with the old and infirm. It’s a convincing example of how technology can bring us closer.

Another highlight upstairs is Hugs, by German artist Simon Menner. Fixed along a wall is a row of photographs. They’re sweet images of men gripping one another tight. There is, however, another dimension to this exhibition; I don’t want to spoil it, but when the penny drops you might find yourself feeling a little disorientated. The intimacy of these men is hard to imagine and hard to accept. Yet, captured as it is in the photographs, it’s also hard to deny.

A Five-Year High

I recently spoke with Jennifer Moore, the lead moderator of the show, and asked her how she felt things were going so far.

“It’s been a great success. That was the biggest opening night we’ve had in five years. And people are still pouring in the door. And they’re really engaging, they’re staying so long, looking at everything here.”

When I asked Moore what she credits for this success, she said the subject. “Intimacy is something that touches us all. It’s something we all need to feel in our lives. I think for that reason this exhibition matters to people. And we’re seeing such broad groups coming in. It’s inspiring. It really is something universal.”

There are many more highlights in this wonderful show. There is even an exhibition from Marina Abramovic, one of the world’s most famous performance artists. As part of Intimacy, the Science Gallery are also hosting a range of talks and one-off events, which are listed on their website.

The Gallery has always offered interesting exhibits that blur the lines between art and science. With the Intimacy exhibition, they’ve really come into their own.

The Intimacy exhibition is free and runs until February 24th.

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