Touch, Don’t Touch, Inhale, Imagine

Valeska Soares’ work transforms any space and calls to a viewer with a sensual siren song. Many of her artworks call out to an observer to be touched and experienced with more than the recommended sense, viewing from a safe distance, that museums prefer. If you are fortunate enough to see her art before it is purchased by an art collector you will have a different experience than those of us who have only viewed her exhibits in museums. For example, Fainting Couch, a piece currently on display as part of her show Any Moment Now. If you come across it at one of the museums that are hosting the retrospective, you would be forgiven if you walk by it.

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Valeska Soares. Fainting Couch. 2001. Stainless Steel, Stargazer Lillies, and Textile. Phoenix Art Museum

A gallery attendant was circling Fainting Couch at the museum where I came into contact with it. It was her job to ensure that no one came within two feet of the piece. The reason it caught my eye is the museum’s label. When I read through the material list, the second material, stargazer lilies, did not fit in with what I was viewing. When I returned home, I did some research on the piece and came across an interview with Soares where she described how the work was filled with lilies. Her intent was the viewer would lay on the stainless steel couch and take in the smell of the flowers through the grid of small holes that are present on the surface. Unfortunately, the owners of the piece have requested that visitors to the Any Moment Now exhibit resist the urge to lay down on Fainting Couch. Their fear is the artwork could be scratched.

When I went back to see the piece a second time I asked the gallery attendant if the museum fills the Fainting Couch with lilies. He shared that they restocked it each morning and recommended a spot where I could stand and experience the smell. I could sort of smell the flowers, but at the same time, I wondered if this is what Soares would want the viewer to be doing with this piece. My memory of her description of what her work could be was much more exciting then what I was viewing. Is something lost when work that was created to be touched is deemed off-limits? It is protected from being scratched so future admirers can walk by and look at it and imagine what it would be like to experience it.

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