Touch is a joint project by Museum and Exhibition Association Project Manege (Moscow) and Manege Central Exhibition Hall (Saint Petersburg). It main aim is to demonstrate a new type of relationship between art and its audience, as well as to challenge the prevailing views on disability in the current cultural context.
The revisiting of norms and abnormalities in 20th century art and culture is closely associated with the gradual overcoming of outdated views on them. This type of flexible and critical mentality in the past helped to change prior perceptions of disability. In many ways, this mentality has been created by modernist art, which is perpetually focused on developing its own language as well as on inventing new forms and practices that open up new possibilities of inclusivity for a much broader range of people. Today, disability does not mean deficiency anymore; however, it refers to the social and material barriers that people with disabilities face.
There are a number of utterly fascinating cases within the unofficial Soviet culture that emerged as a response by large swathes of the intelligentsia to the system of censorship and prohibition that existed in the Soviet public culture back then. These phenomena of unofficial art, literature, samizdat and independent civil rights groups were closely interrelated during Brezhnev’s Stagnation Era. These cases include a few self-organized groups for people with disabilities (Initiative Group for Handicapped People’s Rights in the USSR; Prometey, Iskra, Feniks) – they all strove to break the public silence surrounding people with disabilities.
The works of Vadim Sidur, a Soviet artist and sculptor, as well as a World War II veteran with disabilities (1924-1986), signify a coming together of these themes; and make up the primary part of the exhibition. By responding to the tragedy of a war that had crippled and mutilated millions of people, including Sidur himself, he was among the first to address the theme of disability in post-war art. And more broadly, he created solutions in the form of sculptures that transformed real physical and psychological trauma into generic images of exclusion, incapability and ostracism.
There was an instance related to Sidur's art that became truly symbolic. After Sidur’s death, his personality and art enjoyed an outburst of public attention. His studio and recently established museum offered a set of tours for current and former foster children from the Zagorsk care home for deafblind people. For the first time ever, these tours gave people with severe combined hearing and visionary impairments a chance to experience and learn about so-called formalism in art. During a visit to the famous sculptor's studio, Alexander Suvorov, a deafblind alumnus of Moscow State University and later a professor of psychology, stated: “I would’ve loved to have talked to Vadim Abramovich [Sidur] and discuss the dialectics of the abstract and the concrete… These works are not abstract. Ultimately they are concrete due to their symbolism”. Unique videos of those tours and visits are also part of our project.
Within our project, the works of Sidur set up a dialogue with sculptures by artists, who consist of both his peers and our contemporaries, from Leningrad and St. Petersburg. They include pieces by Lev Smorgon, Robert Lotosh, Anlexander Pozin and others.
The exhibition is made up of four conceptual blocks. They consist of the works of different artists who use various styles and materials. Each of the blocks strives to interpret universal human experiences on a number of levels. A gallery consisting of faces and portraits speaks of the types of understanding that an individual develops for someone else. A row of figures standing apart from one another demonstrates the various ways of social identification: who is this person in a traditional social frame of reference (sex, age, occupation)? What does this person do? What feeling does this person have? These group compositions open up a whole panorama of human interaction. And the final block focuses on retrospective experiences and the abstract interpretation of images derived from external sensory experience.
This project seeks to give these topics and concepts a platform, so that they can be heard by all people. There is no discrimination based on physical or intellectual capabilities involved in the selection of the participants. It's an experience where the purpose of the art work is not solely to imprint itself on the viewer, but rather to become a source for new public discussions and egalitarian relations.