Books to See and Feel

I, like most of the world, have experienced the last ten months from a distance. Avoiding physical closeness in public spaces has become a collective reflex for most of us, all while everyday we crave it more. How strange, then, to be invited to an exhibition that encourages, even necessitates, touch. Out of Sight, Beyond Touch opened in January at the Center for Book Arts in New York City. Curated by Maryam Ghoreishi, the exhibition takes on the timely task of investigating the role of haptics in art and life. Although the symbiotic relationship between sight and touch is the show’s stated subject, it seems to be just as much about translation — between verbal and visual, between visual and physical, and between perceptible and comprehendible. The works by Masoumeh Mohtadi, Shirin Salehi, Bahman Mohammadi, and Amina Ahmed investigate the generative potential of these forms of translation, as well as the rifts in communication they cannot repair. In what ways does navigating across senses enrich our understanding and in what ways does it confound?

Of the works shown, Amina Ahmed’s series Un-furling, Iqra — only velvet feels like velvet. (2016–18) embodies the show’s titular phrase “out of sight” most completely. Her books are concealed under a glass case covered by a blue velvet cloth, which creates an air of indulgent mystery. After reading the wall-mounted dictate to engage physically with the art, I took an apprehensive look around the empty gallery and reached my recently sanitized hands under the shroud. Upon encountering the first book my uneasiness softened into a calm curiosity. The book had what I discerned to be a velvet cover, broad like a children’s book, with exposed stitching where the pages were bound together. The pages themselves were soft, grainy, embossed with varying shapes or patterns. A series of small raised bumps marched across one page like a line of ants. Dutifully, my fingertips followed suit, progressing with the intimacy of running one’s hands over another’s scars.

Amina Ahmed, “Un-furling-Iqra — only feels like velvet” (2016-2018), embossed books on paper and graphite with velvet binding and cotton thread, variable dimensions, 6 x 12 inches, photograph by Samoel Gonzalez

Another piece by Ahmed I left unhandled despite its vulnerable position on a plinth at the center of the gallery. “I rolled your letters into one, and dipped them in water” (2008) is a dense, standing cylinder of papers, bleeding with ink and wrapped in an outer layer of mesh, through which I could almost read the writing underneath. The self-contained piece provokes a heartrending sense of estrangement, of being physically with a loved one but emotionally distant, or physically distanced but emotionally tethered. To touch it, I feared, might be a breach of the artist’s trust. And still, it might remain unintelligible to me in my hands.

Along with translation, (il)legibility is a central theme of the show — what it takes for something to be not only perceived but also understood. If all comprehension is a subjective process of translating imperfect senses into sense, then how can we ever truly understand one another? At a virtual Center for Book Arts event with the artists, Ahmad proposed a series of rhetorical questions: “What is text but something that is woven?” “What is perception but grasping or trying to grasp something and understand it?” And if we take these to be true, “What is perception of reading but grasping for something that is woven?”

Mohtadi’s work takes this idea of weaving text literally. Her origami books include pages of cut outs, which layer together into unique three-dimensional works. In her other pieces, pages of published books are sliced up and interwoven to create collaged objects that cannot be “read” in the traditional sense. Mohtadi’s works combine Persian and English texts or forgo language all together to challenge the seeming immutability of communicative structures, and to “search for an independent system outside the contractual boundaries of language.” She manipulates a physical form of language — the published book — that feels fixed and unchangeable, revealing it to be a permeable construct like any other, creating what she calls “an expansive chain link of signified connections.” With these “unreadable” objects, touch becomes a grounding force, a language that offers a different definition of literacy.

Shirin Salehi, “From the series ‘Back from a walk,’ clay tablet I“(2018-2019), inscriptions on black porcelain clay, 3 x 1.5 x 0.20 inches, image courtesy of the artist

Touch is a particularly personal sense; contact leaves a mark, and in doing so confers responsibility. In pandemic times, we are particularly aware of the invisible traces we pick up and those we leave behind. Salehi plays with the material of language to explore what’s left behind, “the grammars of mystery, withdrawal and silence.” In her series Back from a walk (2018–19), delicate inscriptions in Farsi are carved into crumbling clay. Rather than being the message in Salehi’s work, the writing is meant as a “sign or a trace of presence of a body or a memory of somebody who has been in a specific place and time.” Like relics or keepsakes, the physical objects act as a substitute for, or translation of, intangible matter, ideas, and memories, even of silence. Faced with illegibility, meaning moves from the content of the language to the physical form it takes. (“What is perception of reading but grasping for something that is woven?”)

Bahman Mohammadi, “Protozoan Self-portrait” (2011-2020), wood, acrylic, and wood glue exposed to water, sunlight, and temperature shifts and manipulated by the artist within a 9-year process, 4.5 x 8 x 2.5 inches, 4.5 x 8 x 1.5 inches, photograph by Aidin Baftechi

Whereas Salehi explores traces as near-imperceptible ghosts of material beings, Mohammadi’s Protozoan Self-portrait series (2011–20) can be seen as an amplified depiction of the impact of touch over time. His wood blocks were painted with abstract designs and exposed to the elements for four to nine years as an experiment in evolutionary development. In these organic works, touch and time explicitly co-create the finished product. The physical exposure that Mohammadi subjected the blocks to over many years made them what they are. By positioning this as a self-portrait he points us back to the materiality of our ever-changing bodies in space and time.

Leading with the sense of touch recalls childhood, when putting your hands on objects was the best way to get to know the world. Well before language there is a desire for tactile contact. This exhibition foregrounds those physical, material qualities which make up a work of art, advocating for a more holistic sensory experience in gallery spaces, and positing another route through which to grasp, or attempt to grasp, meaning. 

Out of Sight, Beyond Touch continues at the Center for Book Arts (28 West 27th Street) through March 28.

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