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Tactile poetry with Emilio Isgrò and Lamberto Pignotti. By Andrea Sòcrati

Andrea Sòcrati – Special Projects, Museo Omero

To mark National Braille Day and International Mother Language Day (21 February), promoted by UNESCO and celebrated worldwide, the Museo Omero, the state-owned tactile museum for contemporary arts, multisensoriality and interculturalism (TACTUS) mounted a special exhibition devoted to tactile poetry.

The venture evolved from research conducted by the writer on the subject of art and multisensoriality. By prioritizing the sense of touch, the intention was to build on the experimentation of the Neo-avant-garde movements of the 1960s into what was called “visual poetry”, “total poetry”, “experimental poetry”. The “tactile poetry” project has had the endorsement and active support of two major exponents: Emilio Isgrò and Lamberto Pignotti.
Both are pre-eminent figures on the contemporary art scene and both, in their different ways, have made decisive contributions to the innovation, even the renewal, of literary and poetic language in the post-war period. It was a period marked by new dynamics – consequent on the rapid emergence of mass societies and new technologies – which inevitably led to new relations and new aesthetic horizons. These were horizons which prefigured artistic contamination, combining poetry, painting, collage, music, technology, design, photography, performance, while at the same time reaching out to multisensory and synesthetic experiences. And this was the context providing the impetus for research work which led to the “tactile poetry” project.
Isgrò carried out his first erasures in encyclopedias and books; they were to be understood as a sign of coming rebirth, in other words erasing something so as to pave the way for a future which would need reconstructing. As Isgrò himself explains, “words and erasures are the same thing; we see because sometimes we don’t see – as a surplus of words makes us insensitive to their meaning, so a surplus of images makes us blind”.
As early as 1944, after assimilating the lessons of the Avant-garde, Pignotti began experimenting with verbo-visual art. In the early 1960s he conceived and provided a theoretical basis for the early forms of “technological poetry” and “visual poetry”, and for the “Gruppo 70” along with other artists and critics. Pursuing his determination to move towards a contamination of artistic expressions, he combined and amalgamated different languages and codes, always prioritizing the five senses. This led to the plastic “object-books”, the poems to touch, to drink, to eat, the “chewing poems”, and naturally the “visual poems” in the form of collages or manipulations of news, fashion or advertising photos, and such like. Words and letters of the alphabet are always subjected to aesthetic modification in different artistic modes. We can find examples in the ancient world with the Latin “carmina figurata” (“shaped songs”), later in the typographic poems of Stéphane Mallarmé, in the Calligrammes of Guillaume Apollinaire, and then in the “tavole parolibere” (“words-in-freedom”) of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.
The leader of the Futurist Movement, in his 1921 Manifesto entitled “Il Tattilismo” (“Tactilism”) devotes the eleventh paragraph to “tactile tablets for words-in freedom improvisations”, where the “tactilist”, passing his hand over the tablets, “will express aloud the various tactile sensations” and “his improvisation shall be worded in freedom, i.e. unfettered by rhythms, parody, symtax”.

Now, my aesthetic project is focused entirely on tactile values, which can be expressed in different ways, and with them the Braille code whose letters and numbers are formed by a combination of six raised dots and therefore have their own three-dimensional plastic value. It is not only not shared by ordinary alphabets but entails decoding with the aid of the hands and not the eyes. Like the letters and words of normal alphabets, Braille dots and their structural combinations form signs and shapes which can be appreciated aesthetically both by the hand and eye, but above all they act, through the medium of touch, on our skin. If the two-dimensional point made with a pencil or the fine tip of a brush forms the basis of the grammer of visual language, of seeing, it is the raised dot which underpins the grammar of tactile language, the language of bodily feeling. In this sense we cannot forego mentioning recent neuroscientific research which highlights the close connection between the production and perception of language and the motor system. The term for this is “embodied language” which opens up interesting prospects for revised approaches to language education where gesture, action and learning go hand in hand, as foreseen by Maria Montessori.
Finally, if visual poetry made use of a new compositional element, i.e. space, to enhance the figural structuring of the page, “tactile poetry” contributes another fundamental component: the support, the page itself. The support which accommodates the tactile poem is made of different materials which will inevitably come into play in the tactile enjoyment of the work and will therefore themselves educe feelings and intuitions.
The tactile poem in the exhibition, entitled “The Tree”, consists of fourteen “verse-tablets”, each in a different material, which contain the image of a tree created with raised dots, the basic unit of Braille – fourteen verse-tablets, like a typical sonnet, with tactile rhymes alternating according to the ABAB rhyme scheme for the two quatrains and CDC for the two tercets. The rhymes are defined by the tactile characteristics and assonances of the different materials on which the tablets are printed. It will be up to the hands to discover the shape of the tree and glean the varied tactile sensations which the different materials evoke (including auditory sensations from the sound of the hands passing over the poem), thus conjuring up in every visitor memories, emotions, thoughts, and engaging each in a rare and intimate aesthetic experience. It is an experience which originates in the perceptual and cognitive modes by which the blind apprehend reality, uniting touch and kinesthesia to give rise to that dynamic perception which Rudolph Arnheim held to be the bedrock of aesthetic perception.
The first “tactile poetry” exhibited in the Design Collection room of the Museo Omero features the tangible presence of two leading exponents, in the form of two specially created works. Emilio Isgrò created the first “tactile erasure” for the occasion, a sort of calligram where the words give shape to an image which, precisely because of the embossed erasures, can also be apprehended through the medium of touch. To underline the prominence of tactile values in his work, Isgrò inserts a text in Braille, an operation not merely of a typographical and aesthetic nature but one which has a bearing on the content, providing the reading hands with insights into the sense and meaning of the work.
In his work, Lamberto Pignotti evokes the main organ of touch, the hand, by using an ordinary plastic glove of the kind found in the fruit and vegetable departments of supermarkets. The artist traces the outline of the glove with a red marker pen and adds the words “touch poem” with a black felt-tip. The letters making up the word “touch” are each distributed so as to encounter one of the five fingertips. The use of the supermarket glove undoubtedly prompts reflections on the anthropological aspects of mass consumption, the standardization of behaviour, the disenchantment resulting from routine, the Heideggerian anonymity which leaves little or no space for creative thought and art. But above all, as far as we are concerned, as Pignotti himself says,“the glove erases and prevents us from touching what the hand grasps”, making the point that from childhood onwards our upbringing prepares us to keep our distance from the world. Finally, the “erasure” of the glove’s uniformity through the intervention of the artist inevitably draws our attention back to it. It is a distinctive act which becomes a metaphor for the oblivion which has visited our sense of touch, of gesture; at the same time it reminds us of our carnal identity – feeling deeply through the bowels, the muscles, the tendons – in an age which tends to dematerialize experience by propelling us into an ever more virtual reality.
“Tactile poetry” is born. We await future developments.