Sophmore Charlie Wetzel’s interactive sculpture Inoculation Sensations is located outside of Wriston Art Center. Photo by Pei Robins.
“I’ve had both doses and it’s been two weeks for me, so I’ve hugged a few friends,” explains sophomore Charlie Wetzel. “It felt so weird. It felt alien.” Hugging was her go-to greeting before the pandemic, but returning to it after over a year felt unfamiliar — a sentiment captured in her interactive sculpture outside of Wriston Art Center, just a few yards from Hurvis Crossing.
The construction of metal scraps, fabric and fiberglass was created over spring break on a day when she had the studio to herself, Wetzel recalls. While the project was for a class, it went beyond the usual scope of an assignment, which is often designed to familiarize students with new media and techniques. The analytical approach can sometimes confound the broader goal of art, but this piece sees her focus on a feeling and making art as a product of experience, not instruction.
Though Wetzel has been creating throughout the length of lockdown, particularly in the realms of sculpture and photography, she had been avoiding any pandemic-specific work until now. This sculpture, the first in a series called Inoculation Sensations, decisively embraces the hyper-specifics of the latest chapter of the pandemic, which she refers to as the “endgame.”
As a mixed media artist, Wetzel loves textures and the tactile experiences that used to populate everyday life. It has been a while since anyone has been able to experience the world through touch, but for those who can safely do so again, Wetzel offers a re-introduction. “It’s kind of like putting a doorknob in public where there doesn’t need to be one,” she remarks. Nonetheless, her sculpture is a sensory experience we have been given explicit permission to indulge in when so many other things remain uncertain. In fact, the installation is flanked by signs with suggestions for fully vaccinated people to interact with the art.
They begin as one may expect – “Touch the mesh and consider how this is the first instance of ‘public mesh’ you have touched in an entire year,” reads one line. Then as you read on, “Whisper to it.” “Make a promise.” “Confess.” “Give it a hug.” Following these prompts would leave you publicly conversing with an inanimate object, building an emotional bond with it as passerbys give you strange glances. The signs are sincerely absurd, and on purpose. The piece is industrial, parts of it jagged and cold, yet we are encouraged to approach it gently. The signs are offering unceremonious opportunities to jump into the deep end of feeling, both physical and emotional, despite discomfort. By simply suggesting vulnerability, Wetzel evokes something that has almost become foreign. There is hesitance. Is this safe? Is this weird? Even Wetzel has sanitized the structure on occasion out of an overabundance of caution. So, Inoculation Sensations is not just reminding us what it’s like to be close, but also allowing us to practice it and take time to remember how.
Interaction is not limited by the posted suggestions, though. Bits of metal have been out of their original postures. Some parts have rusted in the rain, while others have been polished by touch. Someone has artfully affixed a panty liner to the corner of the board. Each interaction is proof of not only the growing vaccinated campus population, but also of someone’s reaction to the sensation Wetzel has pointed her lens at.
On her visits to Wriston, Wetzel has been fascinated to see what aspects of the work have been altered. Many traditional art displays are regulated to be viewed at a distance, which has come to be true of human interactions as well, so Wetzel finds pride in seeing everyone let go of all those restrictions. There is a sense of longitudinal conversation between every person who has touched it. Even knowing that someone may have whispered a secret to the sculpture gives it an aura of both anonymity and intimacy.
For those not yet vaccinated, Inoculation Sensations still holds intense meaning. When her grandmother was fully vaccinated a few months ago, Wetzel remembers being excited, amazed and jealous, picturing all the things she would be able to do once she got vaccinated, as well. That sense of anticipation is what she hopes for in those on campus who can only look for now — imagining what it will be like when they can touch, curious and yearning for the sensations that come with inoculation.
Charlie plans to install a new work in the series every few weeks throughout the term, pending approval to put them in public spaces. She thinks they will reflect experiences she can’t even guess at yet as the vaccine roll-out unfolds.