Stephen Lapthisophon: Toccare (Non) Toccare

Dallas-based artist Stephen Lapthisophon created a project called Toccare (Non) Toccare,  which acted in conversation with the current exhibition Giuseppe Penone: Being the River, Repeating the Forest

Lapthisophon's project took place in and around the Nasher Sculpture Center via four installments which began on October 20, 2015 and lasted through January 2016.

Toccare (Non) Toccare included sculpture, found objects, drawing, poetry, sound, photography and video. These various elements were interweaved in Lapthisophon’s actions, events and installations, extending and paying tribute to many of the central ideas in Giuseppe Penone’s work: body, nature, duration and the importance of place. With each monthly installment, Lapthisophon examined the influence of Penone and the Arte Povera movement, as well as the idea of influence itself by addressing notions of impression, touch, ephemerality and legacy.

Mirroring Penone’s early action works in the Maritime Alps in the late 1960s, which are only known through photographic documentation, Lapthisophon’s Toccare (Non) Toccare works were not exhibited publicly, but were experienced primarily through various forms of documentation, including photography, video, and print. All components of the project were shared through a variety of platforms: Lapthisophon’s website (, the Nasher Sculpture Center website, social media channels and a printed book published by the artist in January 2016. 

The accompanying book is titled Notebook 1967-68, taken from American poet Robert Lowell’s text of the same name. 1967 marks the year of the first Arte Povera exhibitions in Italy, and Lowell’s book chronicles the poet’s life that year, interweaving the personal and public with attention to history, as well as the presence of literary and cultural figures. Lowell’s Notebook 1967-68 served as an influence on Lapthisophon’s project and also as a model for the mixing of historic, public and private narratives. The book became a document of the multi-stage project at the Nasher and a space for Lapthisophon to explore auxiliary subjects such as European-American culture, the artwork-as-archive, and the boundary between art and its trace.

October 2015 Installment: Egg Bell
November 2015 Installment: Grey Book (available in a manner of exchange)
December 2015 Installment: From one place to another and Potato Speech*
January 2016 Installment: Black Potato Inside a white column against a tree in front of
scroll down for Lapthisophon's conversation with Jed Morse

Origins of Toccare (Non) Toccare: An interview with Stephen Lapthisophon

In the midst of this four installment project, the Nasher’s Social Media Coordinator, Cassandra Emswiler Burd, checked in with Lapthisophon about the origins of the project. Emswiler Burd has helped to document each phase of Toccare (Non) Toccare for its primarily digital existence on the Nasher’s website and social media channels.

Cassandra Emswiler Burd: What work on display in Penone's current exhibition at the Nasher are you most drawn to?

Stephen Lapthisophon: Being able to see the pile of potatoes (Patate) and the body/leaves piece (Soffio di foglie) in person was the highlight of the show for me. Both still remain as audacious, mysterious and elegant as ever for me.

CEB: When did you first encounter Penone's practice?

SL: In undergraduate school I first saw reproductions of Penone's work in art magazines and in Germano Celant's book on Arte Povera.

CEB: How has his work influenced the things you've made prior to Toccare (Non) Toccare?

SL: I respond to the quiet tone and intensity of the thinking in his work. There is a poetry to the leaps and observations he makes. The subjects—body , time, duration and nature—interest me. Like Smithson, he uses nature and earth to address issues of human history and thinks through the natural world to tell us things about ourselves. More and more I am struck by the fact that bodies make works of art and reflect our aspirations and limitations—our timeliness, through the things our bodies make.

CEB: The book you're working on, which will be published at the end of the project is titled Notebook 1967-68, taken from American poet Robert Lowell’s text of the same name. Is there a specific passage from Lowell's text that inspired the association with Toccare (Non) Toccare?

SL: The use of the Lowell book as antecedent comes from a series of coincidences and parallels. 1967-8 was a significant time for me. It was also the time of many of the first Arte Povera exhibitions. My project serves as an extended "notebook" and reflection of poetry itself. In addition, it is through Lowell that I first read in translation a number of Italian poets, most notably Leopardi and Montale.

CEB: The title of this project translates into Touch (Do Not) Touch. Can you explain how touch enters into the making and reception of the work?

SL: Touch, touching, takes many forms. Language is an important part of my work and I want to play in its many meanings—physical contact, gesture, proximity, madness, influence and the actuality of bodies all play a part in my (and his) work. Influence can be seen as a kind of touch and I am wanting to address my own influence by Penone. Yet as close as we get there is a kind of distance that is always enforced-- "no touching." It is what bodies do and do not do. 

Potato Speech, December 16, 2015

Stephen Lapthisophon: Good, good to see you.

Jed Morse: Good to see you, too.

SL: Just want to have a little bit of a chance to talk about some of the things that you might have thought about after engaging with the process of unwrapping a package, finding what was in it, that kind of thing. I don’t want to put you on the spot so I’ll just tell you some of the things I was thinking about, which is […]

JM: Oh, put me on the spot, I actually want to talk about this.

SL: Okay, good, good.

SL: So what’d you think when you first got the box?

JM: I thought it smelled. And I was trying to place the smell. You don’t often get a box in the mail and the first thing you experience is the way it smells. And it wasn’t until I started opening the box that I realized what it was was dried ink, I think it was ink—that had been poured over the box before the address label was put on it and it. And it was flaking off, and so I knew at that point that even though I was expecting to receive a package, and I knew what was going to be inside of it, that the way that it was packaged was significant. And so, as we do with works of art all the time when we receive them, you open them very carefully, and you take note of how it is packaged, how it is wrapped, what all of the layers are. And so I just began to mentally note what each level was. And so after, you know, opening the box and getting past the kind of ink that had been poured over it, there was a bit of kind of brown paper that was used as padding, removed that, and underneath that was another box that was wrapped in old newspaper, and it was an old page from the New York Times, July 6, 1980. And so I did this wearing white gloves, the way that you would work with any kind of work of art, and when I got to that—you know, this is a very brittle yellowed New York Times page, and so very carefully took that out with whatever was inside of it, carefully unwrapped it, and inside of that yellowed New York Times page was a box of De Cecco penne pasta, without the pasta in it. So the inside (and it seemed like a well-used De Cecco penne box) and inside of that was something else that was wrapped in what seemed like old wax paper because it was it was yellow and it had it a tactility to it. It may not have been wax paper, but it was yellowed, some kind of…

SL: It’s architectural drawing paper.

JM: Okay and then within that was the potato. And so it really underlined--we’re here around the holidays and there’s lots of gift giving—and if you have small children then you know of course that they don’t open boxes quite as carefully as that, and oftentimes don’t notice the level of care and detail that went into the wrapping of the package. They just want the thing that’s inside. So it made you stop and think about each one of those levels and the careful thought that went into it but also what the details might mean.

SL: Good, I’m very appreciative of your care and attention to all of those layers. For me, the aspect of sending you something, having it delivered—the mail is something that does take place by hand--you know, it’s handed off from one person to another to another, and I like that aspect of the mail. And so I was very excited about that: delivering a potato to you. We can talk about the potato itself later, but just that aspect of the carrying by hand. But then I knew that you were expecting it, so I thought well there needed to be something more in the aspect of unwrapping it, too. So there were many layers that you were very kindly attentive to, as well as the olfactory nature was very important. There’s a layer of coffee that’s underneath all of it…

JM: Yes, yes.

SL: And then the old paper, the earthiness of potatoes that have their own smell as well as the old box. And then the ink and spray paint and paper and glue, and so there’s a lot of those things that I wanted to pack into it. Because in a way, it enacted for me the amount of time that went into each of the actions. He could slow you down, by, every time you got a new scent, it would slow down the action in a way. And then of course the kind of event and/or non-event of what is the main event, which is the potato itself.  It was funny, when we first started talking about doing this, you know, I think I told you early on that one of the pieces that was very important to me was the piece that is thrilling to see in a museum—the pile of potatoes. Because it’s something that I’ve worked with for a while—the potato, and the environment of the museum is so beautiful and elegant and pristine that it just seemed to make sense in some way to insert, and kind of disrupt, whatever. So I was thinking well, it’d be funny to have you have one in your office, or in your space somewhere. Like the first time we talked when we were in this room I was thinking oh it’d just be funny to see it somewhere here, so that’s why I wanted to have you have it, but I didn’t want to bring it to you. So when you got it what were you thinking about it in terms of—I loved seeing the photographs of you with the white gloves—but did you enter into any kind of interior thoughts about like, just what is it in terms of its status as art? And as an object which is not made by me but is selected and pulled out of an ordinariness? You know, the most ordinary thing imaginable pulled out of ordinariness by its sort of spotlight you know like being in an art context.

JM: Right, There were two things, first of all, receiving the package, and going through that process and knowing what’s inside, and knowing that that act in itself was meant as a work of art.

SL: As somebody who preserves, have you thought about the difference between this potato and those potatoes.

JM: Yeah, you know, I was thinking, what do I do with this potato? You had given me a sense of responsibility and agency in the piece, and so there weren’t clear instructions about what to do with the potato. Whereas with Giuseppe’s work, there’s a clear sense of what needs to happen with those potatoes, and what they’re meant for.

Jerome Weeks: Excuse me, does the work come with instructions? Does it say how many potatoes, what kind of potatoes, or does it come with the potatoes?

JM: No, in fact there are general specifications for the number and size of the potato, so small, kind of, hand sized potatoes, and about 400 kilos, so 600 to 800 pounds of potatoes, and he’s formed piles of them in the middle of the room or up against the wall as it is here. So, it takes on different forms, and it also changes depending on the scale of the space in which they’re being installed. But the notion is that the pile of potatoes should be the same size and the same color as the bronze casts of the original potatoes that are mixed in with those. And actually he specifies a particular kind of potato, a bintje potato, which used to be very common and apparently is now more of an artisanal potato. But even that is that somewhat flexible and what’s most important is the size and the color.

SL: And I think by designating an approximate amount, weight, kind of thing, it’s going to end up in a pile that is about that scale and size to humans. That’s one of the things I like about it also, for the cast pieces it’s about the right scale, and they don’t get lost, but at the same time they’re not so prominent as you look into the pile. I think there’s a kind of tendency in some works of contemporary art that wanna just impress or bowl you over with some aspect of overdoing—this doesn’t bully you in its effort either. It’s just a modest pile.

JM: It’s certainly not a spectacle.

SL: It’s not a spectacle at all. The modesty and the humility of it is always in the forefront. Even in some of the grander pieces of his, I think that level of touch and of relation between the human body and the work is always held intact. So I think that’s a really an important part of it.

SL: So, back to your level or responsibility and agency. Any thoughts?

JM: Well I thought for a minute should it join the other potatoes in the pile, and then well no this is a separate work of art. It wouldn’t be appropriate to join these two different works of art. And because we had received a new work of art, I brought it to our Director, Jeremy Strick, and showed it to him, because I wanted him to see it as well. That seemed like an appropriate thing to do with a work of art. And I thought after spending time with this, what’s supposed to happen to it? Should it be buried in the garden? To go back to the earth? So I don’t know, what were you thinking would happen to this?

SL: It was one of those things that actually, I thought about that as well, and thought about finding a place in the garden where it could stay, and just do what it’s going to do. It’s one of those things that, for me, the art was in the action: in the social dimension of engaging you, unpacking, and thinking about it, and the way in which the action could produce a series of other actions that made people think about what works of art do, what are the demands of permanence in works of art, the way in which the action could engage us with how we think about time, and duration, and our own time and duration and things like that. And, I felt like there were things that shouldn’t happen to it, but that I thought that in a way, I really had to work hard to not impose an end for it. And I wanted to not demand too much of you in the responsibility for it, but that in a way, something would seem to make sense from our conversation that we would decide what its fate would be.

JM: Right, right, yeah.

SL: Because it’s not a work of art, and it doesn’t need to be preserved in that way, but it shouldn’t necessarily be discarded either. It’s not a ritual object. It’s kind of just a marker. There’s something—it’s why I use them a lot in my work, there’s something that’s always old about a potato, even new potatoes—there’s something that’s old about them. Something that’s humble about them and modest, but at the same time, kind of oddly noble in the way in which they’re of the earth and kind of old in that way. The nobility of something initiates a kind of way of thinking about the dignity of something, and those kinds of issues. I wasn’t sure actually, and I did occasionally find myself thinking about “oh, this should happen, this should happen, this should happen,” and it seemed too constricting to come up with that end.

Maybe we should give it to Jerome? Or find another place to leave it…