Human touch

Exhibition combines grassroots community work with art as social commentary

Sheelah Murthy wears many hats. Besides being a classroom teacher, college professor and community activist, US-born and Thailand-based artist Murthy is also a trained massage therapist. Her first lessons on the power of touch in healing date back to when she was a volunteer at an HIV Wellness Clinic.

Sheelah Murthy’s ‘Economies Of Touch’ at H Gallery.

In her current exhibition in Bangkok, "Economies Of Touch", Murthy renders her ability and fascination in the art of physical intimacy of touch when entangled with a complex global economy.

Hosted at H Gallery, Murthy collaborated with Gregory Wilde and the NGOs Dignity Returns and No Chains for this live exhibition. Dominating the dimmed room is a hut where Murthy massages her daughter. She is wearing a camera attached to a headband while performing.

The white ceiling is used as a screen to play video of the massage, in which the size of the image is linked with the stock market by a computer programme _ whenever the stock market goes up, the camera will capture a wider angle. Placed on the floor are artworks made from rattan mats, a community-based project the artist conducted with secondary school students in Rayong.

Her live performance will be staged again on Jan 26 and 27. During other days, visitors can provide donations to activate video footage of her performance and the money will go to the NGOs. "Economies Of Touch" will run until Jan 31.

Life spoke to Murthy about her participatory video installation and the story behind this project.

What inspired you to create this exhibition?

Students at ISE International School creating artworks on rattan mats.

Like other massage practitioners, I have worked on people from all walks of life _ from priests to politicians _ and in every one of these encounters I am struck by various levels of interaction between two virtual strangers. Many times there is a verbal exchange. I have learned so much from all these different bodies I have touched. Their stories have in turn touched me. But even when there is silence, the exchange becomes almost meditational. In fact if you think about it, the power of touch to heal is very instinctual.

When a person bumps, or hurts themselves, it is instinct to instantly touch, rub or massage the area of injury. As for contemporary society, there are not many outlets for socially acceptable touching between strangers and acquaintances. Massage is a form of touch acceptable between two people who barely know each other. It can be an intimate and profound experience.

One of the most amazing massages I ever received was in a humble little bamboo hut on a tiny island here in Southeast Asia. The wisdom and intelligent compassion I felt in that hut has stayed with me ever since.

That hut was similar to the simple nomadic shelters that have fascinated me since I can remember. Nomadic shelter as sculpture is not only an extension of the forts and tree houses I built as a kid, but it has also taken on new meaning for me _ as a metaphor for nomadism and the healing power that comes from the grassroots of what others might even deem as impoverished communities.

Why do you use the stock market as one of the media in this exhibition?

The stock market doesn't necessarily reflect the people working in this system. What we see when we look at stock quotes is the rise and fall of profits. Like massage, there is an exchange going on, but we don't necessarily see this. The economy as we know it has become this humongous organism.

Those people with the expertise to manipulate or massage the market have tremendous power. I must admit I find the whole thing rather mind-boggling _ even mystical _ and I guess that keeps me out of it.

My ignorance makes me vulnerable to exploitation. So yes, in a way this is my attempt to relate it to an exchange I do understand _ the exchange of touch.

You are usually referred to as a "feminist artist". What is feminist art?

Feminism has moved through several waves evolving into what it is today. Some theorists even speculate that feminism is dead and identify themselves as post-feminists. To be perfectly honest, I can't be bogged down with labels.

Yes, I owe so much of whom I am to the feminist movement. I embrace that which is feminist within me. I am not interested in being in denial or ashamed of the hard fight that came before and the ongoing struggle of women to be respected and treated with dignity.

Yet, I think we should always be open to critique for that is what will keep feminist thought relevant to the real experiences of all people who identify as women. Feminist art? What is that? Is it collaborative? Is it performative? Is it gender specific? I suppose it is that which explores all that I said before, but through a creative process.

Audiences can donate to charities at the exhibition. Tell us about these projects?

I believe it is important to take a multi-lateral approach when working with communities. Inviting workers from No Chains and Dignity Returns grounds "Economies Of Touch" to the wisdom and strength of the grassroots. So much of our economy is built on the backs of people who do manual labour. The garment industry is one of those industries that cannot be fully mechanised. It still relies a great deal on hand-touch labour. No Chains is a network of worker cooperatives that aim to expose abuses of the global garment industry, while serving as a model of self-management and sweat-free labour. Dignity Returns is part of the No Chains global network. It is a Bangkok-based cooperative that produces garments for a variety of clients under conditions of democratic workers' control _ a factory by workers for workers. The Dignity Returns cooperative has managed to stay afloat during these economically challenging times. But they have only done so by accepting the assistance of other aid groups. I wanted to draw attention to their valiant efforts and to show my solidarity by including them.

Sheelah Murthy.

About the author

Writer: Yanapon Musiket
Position: Life Writer