Walters exhibit has a touch of science

Display, a collaboration with Hopkins, invites visitors to handle sculptures in effort to explore how brain reacts to tactile sensations

  • Form the Walters exhibit "Touch and the Enjoyment of Sculpture": Anonymous (Italian), Modest Venus (Venus Pudica), ca. 1500, bronze with dark brown lacquer patina, silver.
Form the Walters exhibit "Touch and the Enjoyment of Sculpture":… (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore…)
January 13, 2012|By Mary Carole McCauley

The Baltimore Sun

Though the small statue with the greenish hue is nicknamed "The Modest Venus," she is anything but.

It's true that the 10-inch figurine from the Italian Renaissance has one hand demurely covering her fig-leaf area, and the other held up as if to fend off unwanted advances. But around 1500, an anonymous metalworker crafted the Venus from bronze, which is naturally cool and pleasing to the touch. He gave her rounded limbs and an abundance of undulating curves; her buttocks might have been expressly designed to fill an adult's cupped palm.

Despite her outward reserve, this little lady is a flirt who practically begs to be caressed.

The statue is one of about three dozen artifacts making up "Touch and the Enjoyment of Sculpture," opening Jan. 21 at the Walters Art Museum. Part art exhibit and part science experiment, the show poses provocative questions about how our brains process tactile information, and about how artists throughout the centuries have exploited the inborn human preference for certain physical sensations.

"When we were reinstalling the Palace of Wonders, I picked up a statuette of the nude Venus," says Joaneath Spicer, the Walters' curator of Renaissance and Baroque art. "It fit exactly in my hand, and I thought: 'What do you know? This feels fantastic.'"

"I wouldn't have guessed that. I said to myself, 'Whoa. What's this about?' Could it be that in the 1500s they realized that this statue is incredibly satisfying to touch, and that it wasn't accidental?"

"Touch and the Enjoyment of Sculpture" is the second Walters exhibit to involve a collaboration with the Johns Hopkins University's Mind/Brain Institute.

In 2010, "Beauty and the Brain" explored whether humans have an inherent predilection to find some shapes more appealing than others. The new show poses similarly provocative questions about touch.

Visitors to the Walters will be asked to hold replicas of famous artworks, some of which have been modified. They'll be asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how enjoyable it is to handle statues with rough or smooth surfaces, statues that vary in how much they are curved, and statues of different sizes and shapes.

Brain scientist Steven Hsiao is in the midst of a four-year research project. He's trying to pin down whether touching certain objects generates identifiable patterns of neural activity that people find pleasurable, and whether those configurations are activated when humans encounter great works of art.

Studies have found, Hsiao says, that stimuli such as lines, curves and motion generate similar responses from the neurons in the brain associated with vision and from those linked to touch.

"If the basic physical properties of vision and touch are processed the same, what about the cognitive things, like aesthetics?" he asks.

He has a hunch that people enjoy laying their heads on soft pillows and stroking a cat's silky fur because they cause neurons in the brain to fire at a relatively low, but constant, rate. We perceive this as restful and soothing and, hence, enjoyable.

In contrast, sandpaper, the sharp visual angles created by high-rises in an urban streetscape, or a cacophony of horns and voices cause neurons to fire in extremely irregular patterns, and are therefore perceived as stressful.

In addition to the data collected at the Walters, Hsiao is conducting related experiments at the Maryland State Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, and at the Mind/Brain Institute.

For now, test volunteers are being asked to subjectively rate how much they enjoy various physical sensations caused by touching objects that differ in roughness, hardness, size and shape.

Eventually, these intuitive assessments will be compared to the neuronal activity generated inside our skills by the same activities. Hsiao will look first in an area of the brain called the somatosensory cortex, because that's where touch initially is processed. Later, he'll explore the insular cortex, which handles pain and pleasure, and the frontal lobe, which regulates judgments.

One of the project's main goals will be to develop a template of brain activity when Hsiao's subjects are experiencing physical pleasure. The scientists will then try to determine how closely that blueprint corresponds to the neuronal patterns generated by gazing at and handling sculptural masterpieces and other artworks with tactile appeal.

"I think there's a sensory component to pleasantness, but there's also a higher, cognitive component that stems from memories and learned behaviors," Hsiao says. "Art taps into both of these."

When they're not providing data, museum visitors will have about a dozen beautiful statues to look at that will also make them think about human beings' often-ambivalent feelings about touching and being touched.

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