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Whimsical art project Stranger(’s) Touch moved me to buy a cup with bite marks

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In the age of safe distancing and Zoom meetings, the idea of physical contact has warped in our minds. Not quite taboo, but generally discouraged. Yet, at the same time, we know that physical contact is nearly impossible to live without.

Enter Stranger(‘s) Touch, an art project hiding under the guise of a beauty brand” striving to get us to reconsider “the way we engage with everyday touch.” Artist-curator Daniel Chong and art director Pixie Tan are the initiators behind the art project, which is located at Crane‘s Arab Street outlet. 

I was curious about the implications of the crossover between art, aesthetics, the intimacy of touch, and commerce.  

What does it mean to portray art as an everyday commodity? How can touch change the way we interact with art? What does it mean to disrupt art spaces as we know them? What does it mean to co-opt the aesthetics of a beauty brand? What value does that bring to the presentation? What’s it like to present ideas and experiences of touch in the age of Covid?

This potent cocktail of questions swirled in my head as I climbed three flights of stairs at Crane to reach the attic housing this playful, intelligent project. 

First Impressions

Decked out in warm light and pastel pink, papier-mâché-like display shelves, Stranger(’s) Touch felt right at home in the trendy co-working and event space Crane. Tan and freelance art director and set designer Phoebe Zoe Ho (who’s also one of the participating artists) are behind the spatial design. 

Working between commercial set styling, design and branding, Tan shared that the project allowed her “to explore and challenge the different tropes that are used within commercial language.”  

The thoughtful, audience-oriented branding stood out to me. Everything from the organically shaped motifs in the project’s visual language to the distinct colour palette of pale pink, lilac, and soft yellow proved to be intentional design choices that bolstered the project’s commercial appeal.

As for the exhibition’s title — Stranger(‘s) Touch— Chong came up with it early on, explaining “that it allowed for a few quirky interpretations, calling to mind a mysterious stranger or the way we find various degrees of touch strange.”

Speaking on the relatability of touch, Chong added, “We all understand touch, we can tell what a surface feels like from an image and our tactile understanding is much more instinctive than we realise.” 

To me, this branding proved successful, since I felt like I had stepped into an alternate pop-up location for beauty giant Glossier. The overall experience made me recall how, in pre-Covid times, beauty stores allowed us to touch and swatch makeup to our heart’s delight.

Viewing it as an art project — Stranger(’s) Touch is careful not to refer to itself as an exhibition — I found it refreshing. Sitting at the intersection of art, lifestyle, and commerce, it invites visitors to interact with art in a much more sensorial manner than traditional gallery settings or more recent digital exhibitions. 

The project also drives home the idea that art isn’t just something we hang on the wall and stare at: art can be something we physically interact with every day and have deep relationships with. 

Strange Beginnings 

Stranger(’s) Touch stemmed from Chong’s interest in used soaps. He’s been amassing a small collection of them ever since 2019. Waxing lyrical about the material, he shared:

“The object itself was so fascinating to me. It was a beautifully sculptural form that was created so casually through days of washing. But also, it was an object that held so much tension; it was technically clean, yet asking someone else to use it would evoke a strong (sense of) repulsion.” 

While Chong initially struggled to find methods of presenting the soaps, he joked to a friend that he should turn them into actual products. This turned out to be the impetus behind Stranger(’s) Touch.

Tan was introduced to Chong via a mutual friend, and she “pretty much said yes straight away.” 

“I was personally amused by the possibilities to sell (old but new) soaps to an audience …. under the guise of a beauty brand, and through that, distribute art to a new audience,” Tan explained.

“I was also curious at how we could adopt and combine the format of an exhibition and retail for this project.”

Meet the artworks 

Daniel Chong’s scented soaps, Ho’s delightful blob-like object holders, and textured mugs by Tricia Lim (who some might also know as the founder of Pinch Ceramics) make up the works on display in this presentation. These, together with the display furniture, are all for sale. Marketed as practical everyday items, they’re sold at more financially accessible price points than typical works of fine art.

Appearing partially used, Chong’s pre-packaged scented soaps might strike confusion in the hearts of some. However, the key thing here is that they all bear traces of various degrees of touch. 

At first glance, they look like constellations of vacuum-packed soap shards. But upon further inspection, you’ll notice that some look like the last chunks of soaps you can’t let go of, while others reflect the curvature of the maker’s hands. There are three limited edition kits to pick up: Sliver Linings, Intimate Exchanges, and Sore Limbs and Tired Bone ($28 – $38 each).

If you should decide to buy a set, you’ll then have to decide whether to keep the soaps as they are for display purposes, or actually use them! The choice is entirely yours to make.

Next, turn your attention to Hold Me, Ho’s series of concrete object holders ($45 – $60 each), and be sure to pick them up! They might look like soft, squishy mounds of dough but have a solid weight and feel.

Their design calls to attention how being ‘touched’ by certain experiences in our lives shapes us. A simple idea, but ultimately a well-executed one that encourages us to reflect on pivotal moments in our lives. 

Then, there’s Lim’s Ban Mian Cups ($40 – $90 each). These are satisfying to touch and hold, with their textured surfaces bearing bulges, dents, dots, and even bite marks. I enjoyed how natural it felt to curl my hands around the mugs. Part of me could already imagine how satisfying it would be to hold one as I drank my morning coffee out of it. 

Artists Chew Shaw En and Ang Kia Yee will also be accompanying the pop-up with the performance slipslidehold!, which seeks to explore the unpredictability of soap as a surface agent.

An impulse purchase 

I’ll admit right now that I threw my careful monthly budgeting out the window to get my hands on one of Lim’s cups. Objects and art that others might view as strange or grotesque intrigue me, leading me to bring home a cup with bite marks on it. 

My younger sister viewed it as “kind of gross — but in a good way,” but I was drawn to the strange intimacy of the bite mark on the cup. I could see where the artist sunk had her teeth into the side. There’s a chunk by the rim that’s been bitten off and I could even make out the ridges of each tooth.

It’s hard to put into words how I feel about owning an object that has such explicit traces of someone else’s touch, other than that I’m simply moved by the idea of such closeness. Touch is so crucial to the way we experience life; perhaps it was something that I had been unconsciously yearning for throughout the pandemic. 

“We hope that this project and its products infiltrate (daily spaces) as small reminders to appreciate the poetics of everyday touch.” Chong and Tan said.

As I reach to use the bitten mug for my afternoon cup of tea, there’s no denying that Stranger(‘s) Touch has successfully articulated this. 

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Stranger(’s) Touch runs at Crane Arab Street until 30 March 2022. Click here to sign up for slipslidehold! by artists Chew Shaw En and Ang Kia Yee.

Feature photo by Toni Cuhadi. Image courtesy of Stranger(‘s) Touch.

An earlier version of this article contained references to Daniel Chong’s soaps as being priced at $28 each. The references have since been corrected.

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