Please touch the artwork at Des Moines Art Center’s interactive new exhibit

Ange Altenhofen’s Braille Series, Occupation: Coax, Coddle, and Caress

Des Moines Art Center, Friday, Nov. 18 at 5 p.m., Free

A mask embroidered with Braille poetry, as part of Ange Altenhofen’s exhi “Lines of Communication.” — courtesy of Des Moines Art Center

Touch is widely considered to be the most intimate of the five senses, one that has been highly politicized and rationed through the COVID-19 pandemic. For a long time, the general public wasn’t able to be physically caring with many of their loved ones, regardless of the need: a hug, a backrub, a kiss, sitting across the table and speaking over coffee.

Ange Altenhofen’s interactive exhibit Occupation: Coax, Coddle, and Caress, seeks to study this urge to touch the items and people we care about, even if we don’t have access to one another.

Though the context of Altenhofen’s exhibit was influenced by the absence of touch during the pandemic, she began working on the collection 20 years ago, as she exited her graduate studies at the Art Institute of Chicago. The summer after her graduation, Altenhofen was diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition which doctors had suspected might leave her blind. Facing a new fear of losing the visual career she just began, Altenhofen began teaching herself Braille and turned it into a new medium.

“I was always sort of a process artist anyway,” Altenhofen said. “I was learning Braille and embroidering it, using beads to represent the dots, onto objects that I’d been making before anyway. It became this really rich, tactile surface — and became more about touch and interaction.”

Altenhofen cites Fluxus artists (a group of experimental performance artists from around the globe, including Yoko Ono) and Ana Mendieta, a University of Iowa grad (BA, MA, MFA) and performance artist through the late 1970s and early ’80s, as direct inspirations. Though Altenhofen works primarily with sculpture, a medium usually seen but never touched, the process of viewing her artwork is not over until it is experienced with the sense of touch and tactile interaction — a performance requiring audience participation.

“All of the objects that I’ve made using the Braille beadwork requires interaction, or invites it,” explains Altenhofen. “In terms of art theory, it kind of breaks free of the preciousness … the art object you aren’t supposed to touch because you might damage or mar it. All of that [interaction] is what gives the object life and history.”

Altenhofen’s work took a hiatus during the pandemic. Not only were most galleries and museums closed for viewing, but it was an impossibility for so many different people to touch the same object.

The pieces in Occupation: Coax, Coddle, and Caress are wearable, but have almost always been displayed unworn. Only two — beaded gloves and a pair of gorilla suits embroidered with love poems translated into Braille — have been worn in an exhibition.

As Altenhofen says, “they haven’t been activated yet.”

“Metaphorical function” is a recurring term in Altenhofen’s artist statements and labels, which describes the importance of an object’s potential usefulness by merely existing.

“The inanimate object is sort of a way for two animated objects to come together and relate,” Altenhofen explains.

In one of these performances, a demonstration of A Conversation Between Two Poets, two of Altenhofen’s close friends — one male, one female — donned her poem-embroidered gorilla suits and, without speaking, read the beads in each other’s fur with their hands. Mimicking the action of apes cleansing each other free of insects, a primal act of care, the two gorillas read the love poems embroidered and embedded that exist only through a caring touch.

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The interaction between two people through the catalyst of an object with “metaphorical function” demonstrates the intent of Altenhofen’s work perfectly.

“The beads nestled in the fur … you want to get in there and touch them,” Altenhofen describes. “There’s this caressing of a comfort object thing that’s happening.”

Altenhofen’s sculpted objects will be shown in a similar fashion at the Des Moines Art Center.

“Models will wear the objects while interacting with each other and with the public,” said Altenhofen. “The public can touch them and they can touch the public, whoever wants to be touched. A very festive and performative thing will be happening.”

As exhibition venues reopen, Altenhofen finds a great relief in the “cracking open” of possibility. “There’s all this other rich texture of the world,” she said.

Altenhofen will be displaying pieces from her Braille Series in a first-of-its kind interactive performance on Friday, Nov. 18 at the Des Moines Art Center. The sculptures will only be on display during the interactive performance, which is open for free to the public.

Elaine Irvine is a writer and artist based in Des Moines. She spends her spare time journaling, conversing with her cat, Juniper, and ruminating on the greater meaning of trash TV. This article was originally published in Little Village Central Iowa issue 008.