When elementary school children go to a museum, they must be prefaced on the pricelessness of the work they are about to see, and how touching it is strictly forbidden. “Bring your index finger and your thumb up to your ear, touch them together and pull them apart repeatedly, do you hear that? It’s your bodies natural oil making a tacky sound. That oil is all over your hands, and can damage precious pieces of art. That is why we see with our eyes, not our hands.”
Yet, there is a satisfaction that comes with touching art. The privilege to move it, higher or lower, in or out of a crate, across town, or into the basement, comes with great responsibility. If you are an art handler, as I am, you are probably a good toucher. The taboo of contact is lifted for you. The invisible laser alarm is disabled.
Sometimes I wish art handlers got a special card, one that we could present to any museum security guard, that says ‘This person can definitely touch the art’. We are the ones who put this thing here, wearing white gloves, and shined a light on it, after all.
How do you earn this privilege? Put in your time when the most touching happens: installation. The theater of a gallery or museum melts away during an installation. The curtains are drawn and there is a gestation period for the next exhibit.
All the lights are on and there is bubble-wrap and cardboard and loose stuff strewn amongst the work. A paper sign in the window says they will be closed for installation, but that you should be certain to attend the opening reception, later in the week, where refreshments will be served. The gallerinas have their hair up and the art handlers wear jeans with paint stains on them. The walls of formality disappear, replaced by the concern for the walls themselves. Do they need to be whitewashed? Do they have the fortitude to hold this heavy, mixed-media thing? Punk rock is playing from a dusty boombox, droning behind lively debates about display. “That’s not level” says someone who has been touching the art for longer than you. They spot this from behind hip spectacles, standing a good ten yards away. “Put it where it needs to go and make it look pretty.”
When you are used to this behind the scenes action, it becomes hard to look at art in a vacuum. The artist, the gallerist and the curator usually want you to consider art as if it’s floating in a white bubble, unto itself, separate from the space and time continuum. Important, expensive, and untouchable!
I know better. And that is why I have become obsessed with looking past the facade, searching for the bracketing device, the seam, the attachment, the frame. I wonder how it was crated, and who delivered it. I wonder why it’s right here, and not over there. All of this translates into a curiosity that is not just intellectual, but tactile. This is what happens when you touch too much art.
Indeed, I’m a cog in that buzzing, whirring machine that got this piece here. I did all this work to make it look like it was no work at all. When I wink at you at the reception after laying a corrective hand on a slightly askew painting, you’ll know I’m a card holder. A good toucher.