Tactility—or more precisely, feeling—is a prominent motif in the current exhibition at Kiria Koula Gallery, which features the work of two artists: Özlem Altin (German, based in Berlin) and Patricia L Boyd (British, working in San Francisco).
Three arresting black-and-white silkscreen prints by Patricia L Boyd rest, under glass, on the gallery floor looking like giant microscopy slides. Fittingly, these abstractions reveal themselves to be magnified images of the artist’s skin. Cutaneous ridges and freckles are visible, as are peculiar ovoid blemishes identified by the accompanying gallery text as resulting from “cupping” treatments. Boyd continues the theme of skin as register in a photogram. Photo paper was exposed to ambient nocturnal light in the gallery windows; graffiti, “shadows” of tape, and other irregularities have all been delicately captured.
Human limbs dominate the photographic prints by Özlem Altin, which are notable for their ambiguity. It is hard to determine, for example, if the person with bent knees and pendent arms in Dangling (2011) is dancing with abandon, or flailing and falling. An arm reaches out of a balustrade in Untitled (parmaklik) (2014); there is evidence of playful curiosity here, but also vulnerable exposure of the extremity.
In my work as a physician, I devote a lot of time to looking at bodies. The initial step of any medical examination is, of course, a close inspection of the body for clues that might assist in arriving at a diagnosis. Recently, there has been interest in utilizing the visual arts —specifically, teaching visual literacy—to enhance clinicians’ observational skills and to foster empathy. Buoyed by this new direction in medical education, I submitted myself to an in-gallery exercise: In spending time with these art works, could I get a sense for the interior states of the subjects depicted?
I was struck by how illegible these bodies were. Was cupping a pleasurable experience for Patricia L Boyd? An uncomfortable one? Was the person in Özlem Altin’s Echo (2013) grasping his head in frustration? Grief? Or merely taking a break? This unknowability is embodied in Altin’s Untitled (Arm auf Teppich) (2015), which depicts what appears to be a back-scratcher fashioned like an arm, fingers and all, lying on a carpet. It is a mimic, insensate, and incapable of feeling.
Empathy is defined as “the ability to share someone else’s feelings.” And yet the subjective is a private realm, incompletely accessible to the other. This exhibition at Kiria Koula Gallery illustrated for me that there is a limit to the intersubjective. Perhaps, acknowledging this limit is a form of empathy as well.