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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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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