Essays & Articles

Excerpt from A Tale of Sheep and Golden Light 

First published in Art News New Zealand, Autumn 2019

On a residency last September, artist and artisan Arielle Walker explored the historic colours and textures of northern Iceland.

I’m in the hum of late afternoon sun, standing in fields of golden grass as rivers of sheep pour down around me from the surrounding hills. The light is surreal, almost too perfect, and I can’t help but feel as though someone has crafted this moment to look exactly like Iceland is supposed to look – as though I’ve stepped into a photograph. For many, Iceland exists on the border of reality and dream, history and myth, but actually standing here now it’s impossible to be anything but present.

September–October is the time of the réttir (sheep round-up) in northern Iceland. Our small group of residents at Textílsetur Íslands – the Icelandic Textile Center – has been invited to join in this annual gathering. It’s a huge part of why I decided to come to Iceland in September, even though the dye plants are starting to fade and harsh winds already picking up in anticipation of the long winter ahead.

Although the concept of the réttir is simple, its complicated execution has been perfected over centuries of tradition. After spending the summer wandering free in the highlands, 20,000 sheep and lambs are gathered in a community effort by local farmers on horseback. The sheep are slowly, slowly brought back down from the mountains, the riders setting pace to ensure the animals don’t become stressed or exhausted. When they finally reach the lowlands, the sheep are herded into rétts (enormous round pens) where the farming families begin the days-long process of sorting out which sheep belong to which farm. I notice many are wearing hand-knit lopapeysur (iconic yoked Icelandic wool sweaters) despite the sunshine – I’ve brought my own partially finished lopapeysa along, still tucked away on cable needles, and wish I’d finished it in time to wear it too. Not that there is much time for knitting during a réttir: my fellow residents and I are attempting to help Jóhanna Pálmadóttir, director of Textílsetur, find her family’s sheep. We are welcomed with laughter and good cheer, even though our clumsy attempts are surely more hindrance than help. 


Tactualism in contemporary art encompasses those artists bridging the gap between past, present and future, taking elements from each to create a new sensory aesthetic within tactile, immersive space. The tactualist movement joins the contemporary shift away from passivity and exclusiveness, embracing art that begs to be touched, interacted with and shared. This desire to reclaim a relationship to space through physical interaction has resulted in the re-emergence of traditional craft, used in increasingly inventive ways to establish new connections with communities and environments.


The term tactualism comes from the word tactual, a synonym for tactile. Though there are references to "tactualists" in a few obscure texts from the past century, the term has been unexplored as a notion in its own right. Any mention of tactualism tends to be in reference to the psychological state of the blind or visually impaired - usually in contrast with "visualists" (those who can see) – and as such, has not previously been claimed in a contemporary art context.


Tactualism shares a phonetic connection with actualism, though the terms are conceptually very different. There is, however, one point at which the two can be said to meet: the actualist school of thought suggests that there is only one actual world, and all other possible worlds exist only as fiction within this world. Looking at these fictions of how this world could have been opens up new possibilities for the future – how the world can be. Relating to this, many tactile artists use materials to create new environments - worlds within the "actual” world – that can be explored and interacted with, usually with the aim of reconnecting people to the space and community around them. This narrows down the tactualist movement to one that is concerned with creating a tactile environment, as opposed to small pieces of handcrafted work. Tactile artists such as Mr Finch are not tactualists, as their work is not designed to be immersive. Installations such as Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms or Jim Lambie’s Touch Zobop are also not tactualist works, as they are visually interactive environments without tactile considerations.


There is a fine line between art having a purpose and having a meaning. As the purpose of tactualist art is to create an immersive experience, the subjectivity of personal experience means that tactualist works cannot be intended to carry any “message” or symbolic meaning. Where a tactual installation proposes “a spatial experience, an aesthetic feeling… and many more nominations to refer to the relationship it establishes with the [participator]… any attempt to find a message [will] fail.” Allowing a work to exist without a meaning can be challenging for the participator - Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto has noted the “desperate need” for everything to have a meaning and an explanation, not just in art but in all facets of life*


*“My thinking is much more that the body carries the meanings itself. That is critical of our need to find so many meanings to live. There is this desperate need of explanations of everything. I mean, I really love to have explanations, to read things, to know how things work, or different opinions of things, but at the same time, I am kind of critical of this... I really try to reinterpret nature through my work… thinking about it structurally, how one thing in nature deals with the other. I’m interested in… the atmosphere that we have around us, the micro to the macro. And I think what I want when people have a relationship to [the installation], is that they feel that their selves are there, that the body is something in common to us.” (Neto, interview, 2012)