In the realm of the senses

An experimental exhibition for disabled people opens in Rome

Is it possible to interact fully with an artwork, whatever your sensory and physical abilities and whatever the complexity of the work? "The Roads of Art through Emotions", an exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome, tries to answer this question. The show, designed specifically for a disabled public, is meant to facilitate a complete emotional immersion -- visual, tactile and aural -- in artworks drawn from the gallery's permanent collection.

Works by artists such as Kandinsky, Giacomo Balla, Alberto Burri and Filadelfo Simi are reproduced in relief and thus made touchable. The reproductions are presented together with descriptions in Braille, as well as audio and video materials. Music and perfumes help to deepen the experience.

This is very welcome news in a country where good intentions, as far as disabled people's access to cultural heritage is concerned, are not always matched by good practice. Here in the UK, where London 2012 has recently launched "Unlimited", a £3m programme to celebrate arts, culture and sports by disabled people, they are significantly less likely to participate in arts activities and to attend museum and galleries than their non-disabled peers, as figures from the UK Office for Disability Issues show.

The use of multi-sensory devices to help disabled people to further their cultural experience isn't new. Take "Altered Images", an exhibition that opened in June at the South Tipperary County Museum in Clonmel and moves to the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin in 2010. This has the explicit aim of enhancing the viewing experience and introducing new ways of seeing and experiencing art, for disabled and able-bodied people alike. As well as touch-screens and audio and video descriptions of the artworks, there's an interpretation of the exhibition in sign language, performed by one of the artists.

"New technologies are having a big role in creating new means to improve disabled access to culture," says Alessandro Marianantoni, a multimedia artist whose CO2morrow installation appears in "Earth" at the Royal Academy in London. "Interactivity is a fundamental tool in these kinds of project.

"I'm thinking about an installation I did in 2007, which is still on, for a hospital in Napa Valley, California. It is intended for patients affected by dementia, in particular Alzheimer's disease. The system is able to recognise individual patients when they walk by and activates a range of multimedia content -- photos, videos, music and other stuff -- managed by the hospital and by the patients' families.

"The work is called Memoryvision, and despite its application for medical purposes, it has a cultural and artistic aura in its own right, as it was inspired by my study of Memory Theatre by Giulio Camillo."

The Italian artist Santina Portelli, who paints with her mouth, as she is quadraplegic, says: "The Roman show is certainly very stimulating. It is difficult to imagine how blind people can definitely 'see' a picture. Who knows if, sooner or later, a deaf or a blind person will find a way to give the rest of us to his or her heightened sensibility and let us into a different emotional experience."

 

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era