Thursday, 16 February 2012

GUEST POST : Behind the scene/seen at Art through Words at the National Gallery

GUEST POST by Linda Bolton, one of the team of National Gallery Art through Words

Linda Bolton has kindly agreed to write this guest post on her experience of working on the National Gallery’s Art through Words programme. 

I met Linda at one of the Art through Words events.  This series offers the visually impaired an opportunity to share in and discuss some art appreciation, history of art, social history and even the occasional piece of science with both strangers and friends alike.  For me the thrill is always the stroll through the gallery and “meeting” the painting in question.  I asked Linda to take a “view” of the audio describer and “guide” through the gallery and (though Linda doesn’t mention this specifically) even to make sure we get to our next destination.  At these meetings there is also always the opportunity to discuss what other events or exhibitions are on in the Arts Scene.

Art through Words

Talking about Paintings in the National gallery to the Blind. How was that going to work?

The National Gallery was planning to offer talks on paintings to the blind and partially sighted. Really? We're all about looking at the National Gallery. We've got two and a half thousand paintings, and people like me spend my days talking about them to people who are looking at them. How and what were we going to do with visitors who were unable to see?

To find out how, I signed up for the introductory session in talking to the blind and visually impaired. Here a woman from RIBA raised our consciousness.   The details of the introductory session have now merged into a memory of fascinating information. It began with basics such as what different white canes might signify, and was followed by helping us experience different kinds of impaired sight.

Here I learned about tunnel vision, spotted vision, other kinds of conditioned vision. We donned various spectacles which approximated a variety of visual impairments. We learnt about braille - how it required two elements that not everyone possessed - intelligence and dexterity - so no good for a fat-fingered professor or for a dainty-fingered dimwit.
We worked in pairs, each taking turns to close our eyes and be led around the gallery by a colleague who had to warn us of stairs, corners or doors. But you know all that.

We learnt much that session. It was of sufficient interest for me to discuss with a variety of people. It was philosophically engaging to think about approximation of the sense of sight in those blind from birth. But not everyone who was to attend the session would be that. We were going to meet a variety of people with varying degrees of impaired vision, many accompanied by their sighted partners.

The last Saturday of the month was to be Art through Words where in the quiet of the National Gallery's Conference Room one of the National Gallery lecturers was to talk on a single painting for an hour or so. Magnified details of certain areas could be ordered to provide close up views for those with impaired vision. The sessions were intensely interesting, especially in considering how the painting might be interpreted by someone who had been blind from birth.

At the extreme end of blindness and partial sight were those who had never been able to see. We all have some experience of sightlessness by simply closing our eyes. And most of us do some things sightlessly in the dark of a house we know. Most of us don't put on the light when we go to the bathroom at night, and can attach a phone to charge by touch alone. But blindness from birth is a hard one for the sighted to imagine. While it wasn't hard to understand how a person blind from birth might understand blossom or flowers, how would they understand colour? height of trees? pink cheeks? It was a philosophical curiosity to think on how sight might find its approximation.

In the last part of the session we would go to 'look' at the painting we'd spent the best part of an hour talking about. A curious group we made, walking through the gallery to view a painting. And what does that mean? To view a painting?  What were we doing?

What we are doing 'looking' at paintings is best summed up by the artist Grayson Perry. The most interesting and enjoyable exhibition in London is for me Grayson Perry's Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman at the British Museum, and is centred on the theme of pilgrimage. He is a former Turner-Prize winner, and sold relics of his work in the Tate Modern shop where I bought one. These are his words found inside his relic box:

"I think that the way we look at art comes from religion. We go to special buildings to stare at significant and precious things. We feel it is good for us. Tate Modern is a 21st century cathedral. Artists are saints and holy fools. Here is a relic of one of them to take home from your pilgrimage."

This is what Art through Words does on the last Saturday of the month. The poster of the painting discussed is the take-home relic.