Art review: Haptic

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THE theory behind Haptic, this year's major summer exhibition at the Lighthouse, goes something like this. Our senses are tools with which we try to understand the world. Living as we do in a digital age, those on the audiovisual spectrum are honed far above the others. Taste, smell and, perhaps especially, touch get left some way behind.

So Kenya Hara, of the Nippon Design Museum, Tokyo, invited a broad church of creative people to "design an object from daily life that animates tactile perception".

"Haptic" is an old word meaning "pleasing to the touch", but Hara has defined it in broader terms to demonstrate how design can evoke or "awaken" the senses. We might find, for example, that looking at an object prompts us to imagine how it feels, or even smells.

Naoto Fukasawa, for instance, has designed a series of juice cartons which, by using specially treated papers, mimic the skins of the fruits from which the juice has been taken: the banana is waxy and yellow, the kiwi fruit is furry wittily evoking the fruits themselves.

Architect Shigeru Ban presents the "handy roof", of a rain cape woven from water-repellent paper fibres. Folded up neatly like a map (it could actually have a map printed on it) it is easily stored and quickly recycled, and has the additional benefit of recreating the sound of rain on your own personal portable roof.

Many of these objects stimulate senses using unfamiliar or surprising materials. Kosuke Tsumura makes Japanese-style lanterns using human hair. Bizarre as it sounds, they are beautiful, sensual objects, created using wig-making technology to produce silky, tactile surfaces.

French artist Matthieu Manche has a fresh take on the multiple electrical outlet, an everyday object with predictably dull design. His version is called Mom'n'baby, replacing squares of white plastic with rounded, soft, flesh-coloured silicon gel, the same material as used in breast implants. A quotidien object is bizarrely transformed and eroticised by its haptic power.

When art, craft and design begin to overlap one another's boundaries, practicality ceases to be a guiding consideration. Yasuhiro Suzuki's papier mch bowls, moulded into the shape of cabbage leaves, look beautiful and stack elegantly but wouldn't last two minutes in the dishwasher. Kenya Hara's own contribution, a water feature or "shishiodoshi", has no practical purpose at all but it is mesmerising.

Architect Kengo Kuma's Cast-off Snakeskin Paper Towel is more of a conceptual art project than something for drying your hands. He's really making a point about the gap between what we want and what we think we want: lots of people like the feel of a snakeskin but don't want to live with a snake. As an architect, he is pondering how far he can compromise on materials before they lose their integrity.

Others are quirky ideas which might yet find their way into ordinary life. Graphic designer Kazunari Hattori has designed furry "tails" to use in gift-wrapping instead of ubiquitous bows. British designer Jasper Morrison uses a new type of moulded paper to produce a fully functioning clock that looks as though it is a part of the wall on which it is hung. Architect Toyo Ito has designed a doorknob in the shape of small hand, which "high fives" the person who enters.

All this is variously intriguing, innovative and downright odd, but there is one disappointment about Haptic which is hard to shake. Here at last, you might think, is an exhibition where viewers are allowed – nay, invited – to touch the exhibits. Finally, the cultural barrier created in museums everywhere between viewer and object is being challenged, even broken down.

But you'd be wrong. As much as your fingers itch when you look at Naoto Fukasawa's kiwi fruit juice box, you only get as far as the notice on the display unit (it is on all of them) reminding you that the materials are fragile and asking you not to touch. Small samples of the materials are available to be touched on explanatory panels nearby, but it isn't the same. And all the fur has already worn off the kiwi fruit one.

It's easy to see the museum's point of view on this. The objects are unique and may get dirty or broken if handled. But for an exhibition where touch is emphasised, it would be worth making duplicates for this purpose. And some of the objects are multiples – the cabbage leaf bowls, Sam Hecht's translucent paper cups: where would be the harm in putting one aside for handling?

In a few cases, the object is impossible to grasp (in the metaphorical sense) if it cannot be, well, grasped. You can read all about Panasonic Design Company's gel-filled remote control, limp and fluid as a Salvador Dali clock when not in use, stiffening when clasped in the hand, but you won't "get it" until you try it. The overwhelming sense is of a show which is intriguing, sometimes fascinating. But though your sense of touch is likely to be "awakened", it may well be left unsatisfied.

&#149 Until 29 September

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