What would you do in an art gallery if you couldn’t see? We each see art in our own way. This could not be truer for our visually impaired visitors, for whom ‘seeing’ is a multi-sensory experience.
For the past few months I have been one of the participating gallery guides in the development of multi-sensory tours for the visually impaired. In these tours we are aided by a briefcase of tools (e.g. raised paintings and musical clips) that make use of our sense of smell, hearing and touch to explore our collection. Drama and Desire is its own briefcase! My fellow guide, Myra, and I were able to lead a multi-sensory tour for a group of visually-impaired teenagers using many of the exhibition’s special features to help them see the art by way of their sense of hearing and touch.
Having our visitors feel with their hands the structure of the arches and columns at the entrance of the exhibition, we explained the idea of ‘trompe l’oeil’ and discussed the methods by which artists create perspective in their paintings. We stood in front of The Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David., and reflected over the hard choice these three young men had to make. Our next stop was Antigonus in the Storm by Joseph Wright of Derby, where each visitor took a turn at creating a fantastic storm by spinning the wind and rain machines.
Our tour culminated in the unique experience of meeting our Drama and Desire actor, Alex Dault. He met us in front of Joseph Wright of Derby’s Romeo and Juliet where he transported us into the story through the emotion in his voice, as well as his dramatic interpretation of the prologue of the play. Alex also let our visitors feel the texture of his silk blue costume, the white lace of his shirt, the rich velvet of his hat, and the ticklish softness of his hat’s long white feather. In doing so they gained a better appreciation for the textures of the time period of the exhibition and the characters that come alive in it.
Alex finished with a beautiful vivid description of Paolo and Francesca by Gaetano Previati. After listening to the story all of our visitors agreed that Francesca had not made use of all her senses on her wedding night, or else she would have definitely figured out that it was Giovanni, and not Paolo that she was with. And this is one of the great lessons that our visitors and Drama and Desire taught me: we cannot limit our experience of art to our sense of sight.
In the words of one of our young visitors, for whom this was the third time at the AGO, “Drama and Desire is full-on awesome!” The next time you walk through our exhibit, take note of the rich textures of the theatre props that hang in each room; feel the emotion of King Lear as he banishes his daughter Cordelia; close your eyes and listen to the music in the Degas room as you imagine yourself sitting in the orchestra pit of the Paris Opera; watch a performance by Opera Atelier or Canadian Stage; and most importantly, use all of your senses!
Written by Jessica Duarte