Art That They Made For Me

I had a surprising encounter at an art gallery in Xi’an. I’ve always been a fan of interactive art, it’s part of the reason I helped run a Burn in China. Then I came across a piece in Xi’an that, despite being made for someone else, felt like it had been made for me.

My partner, being an art therapist, wanted to see an exhibit in Xi’an that focused on art on therapy. The exhibition was called Emotional Container and we joked about how it would make us emotional.

The exhibit consisted of several different works of art, many focusing on depression and solitude. Some were presented in video form so you would sit and watch them for a short while.

One exhibit stood out to me, one simply called TOUCH. It was a canvas covered in various felts, Lego, buttons. Painted desk bells were also dotted about it. Somehow it seemed to beckon me toward it. I stared at it, not understanding what it was.

My wife read the instructions and told me I needed to wear one of the blindfolds and touch it. This art was intended to be experienced by blind people, so touch and sound were the important part. We put on our blindfolds and started to feel our way around.

I found myself lost in the sensation, feeling around, searching for new textures. I couldn’t take my hands away from the canvas, I had to keep exploring. I’ve seen a lot of interactive art, but I had never experienced anything like this. And I found myself… crying?

Feeling my way around invoked a memory I had when I was a child. I was in a second hand store in Carlisle when I saw an oil painting of ocean waves crashing onto some cliffs. I went over and started touching the painting, unable to take my hands off it. My reaction was so strong that my mother decided to buy me that painting and I had it hanging in my bedroom until I moved out of home.

As an autistic man, I am especially sensitive to touch. There are some textures I can’t stand to feel, and it’s one of the reasons I’m a picky eater: some foods just have a horrible mouth feel. But it also means that I experience touch more intensely. This art had been made to allow blind people to experience art, but it could have just as well been made for me. Or rather, for people like me.

As we left the exhibit I told this to my partner, to explain why I had had such a strong reaction to the canvas. I told her how I would sit on a beach and just enjoy the feel of sand flowing through my hands. She told me that a common therapy for autistic children these days was sand therapy.

We left and went to get some coffee before heading back to our hotel.

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