InterCommunication No.12 1995
InterCity Boston
Go Japanese
As its title suggests, "Sense-Abilities" challenged the boundaries of human sensibility in ways far beyond many other, more traditionally groomed, gallery installations. Orchestrated by independent art curator Ann Wilson Lloyd with Joyce Chasson, director of the O'Neill Center at Cape Cod Community College, Sense-Abilities triumphed as a collaborative effort among sculptor Ritsuko Taho who was invited from Boston and five persons with disabilities.
The poignant exhibition proffered moving text and visuals to explore the emotional and psychological context within which both physically challenged and (ostensibly) non-physically challenged people confront their universe. To effect this mighty goal, Taho met several times with her fellow collaborators Norma Jean Snell, Mark Geisler, Leo Lucas, Susan Pierce and Jeanette Smith; each shared his or her story to which Taho responded, fashioning personal iconographies to embody a more universal struggle.
"I wanted the audience to feel the presence of the participants through the exhibition," says Taho. "I tried to incorporate their immediate voice through their writings or by creating artwork or photographs or (taping) their talk; that way the audience could experience their voices... they could see some kind of collaboration between the participants and myself."
The resulting multi-media installation clearly stretched the resources of the small college gallery, requiring as it did daily, and in some cases even hourly, maintenance. There were video tapes to rewind, fish tanks to maintain, an audio system to regulate. Gallery goers who experienced frustrating "technical" difficulties with respect to tapes or audio, might well have considered such operational demands too ambitious. The criticism, however, was well put to rest when viewers allowed themselves to experience the totality of the message. That message, most simply articulated as a frank admonishment to "pay attention," emphasized what one has, in every sense of the word, rather than what one has not.
Admittedly the message did not come easily to viewers more societally primed to experience sentient "has nots" observationally rather than introspectively. Taho's installation prevented this misadventure from persisting.
Immediately upon entering the gallery, the viewer is confronted, albeit gently, with a large Braille message painstakingly punched into a large sheet of white board. In an effort to compose an installation in cinch with the natural environment of the gallery's seaside locale, Taho used pearls as the tool with which to create the textured document; the surface of the piece was then brushed with crystallized salt.
The sighted viewer sees art; its non-sighted author sees a means to an end, a carefully sculpted tool linking two visions. Taho's gutsy mock up asserts itself with confidence, both in its size and in its reference to sight in the traditional as well as the cognitive sense.
Confidence, however, is but one aspect of this spirited installation.
Self awareness is the another. By encouraging her collaborators to reveal themselves, Taho goes beyond inviting viewers to do the same. She effectively insists upon it."I thought disabled people must have different experiences of the world, and different senses and different interpretations, different ideas, feelings," says Taho reflectively. "But I found they seek the same things--they think, they feel, they hurt, they laugh, they get angry as we do; they are seeking the same things (but) in different culture patterns."
Sense-Abilities explores that culture, and effectively dispels the myth of separateness to celebrate the universality of the human experience across cultural boundaries. Diverse images incorporated in the collaborative work between Taho and Geisler further suggest the commonality of human sensibilities. Six large, laser print images, computer designed and generated by Geisler, dominate one of the two larger walls of the small space. Taho amplifies Geisler intent by surrounding the prints with a maze-like structure of colored sand, which not only introduces texture to the piece, but also stimulates a kind of visual inquisitiveness with respect to the totality of the work. The images themselves are, at first glance, seemingly unrelated--a bird symbolizes communication, a rose speaks of relationships, a unicorn represents the spiritual self, a dragon stands in for luck and wisdom...When viewed with adjoining text, these images tell a story of courage. It happens to be Mark Geisler's story; it could be anyone's. He writes:

"...When I lost my ability to run
my sense abilities whispered gently to me.
When I lost my ability to walk
my sense abilities whispered gently to me.
When I lost my ability to breathe
my sense abilities whispered gently to me.
Many years have come and gone while my sense abilities whispered gently to me before I heard them for the first time."

Geisler's poem is a wake-up call. Taho's interpretation asserts itself effectively; viewers, at the very least, must acknowledge the message.
It is a message ever evident in each segment of this installation which has much more to do with viewers' own self perceptions than with those of Taho's collaborators from whom the artist takes her inspiration.
Embedded into the back wall of the gallery, three small fish tanks present to the world one view only--face forward. In one, a lone fish and a sea anemone share their aquatic universe. At first glance, the tanks appear insignificant, a stretch, perhaps, by an artist intent on complementing her seaside reference. Upon reflection, however, metaphoric references to interdependency among members of the species rise to the fore--the fish and the sea anemone coexist in a delicately balanced symbiotic relationship; it is not a giant leap to note that we of the human species coexist similarly and are, inextricably, dependent upon each other for survival.
Two conch shells hang on the wall between the three tanks. The shells are wired to taped messages from each of Taho's collaborators who share their personal sense-abilities with gallery goers: Leo Lucas, 55 years old, representative of the United Cerebral Palsy Association. Lucas speaks through a communication device; Susan Pierce, paralyzed from a stroke, lost partial vision and hearing. Pierce speaks of learning from others; Jeanette Smith, victim of a 1985 car accident which left her unable to walk, talk or think on her own, ran the Boston Marathon in 1988.
At all times, art is enriching to those who willing embrace the experience. Sometimes, art is a gift. Thanks to Ritsuko Taho and collaborators, Sense-Abilities is both.

Karen Aude, Art Critic

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