Hands in Three Movements: Vanna Bowles, Arno Rafael Minkkinen, and Sif Itona Westerberg

John Bulwer, Chirologia, or The Natural Language of the Hand, 1644

Found via Public Domain Review

Hands communicate without writing words.
After they press the shutter of a camera.
After they press pencil to paper.
After they carve into stone.

In the 5th century, Saint Augustine wrote that hands functioned as verba visibilia, or ‘visible words' [1]—how they hold, how they drape, how they touch (upon one another, upon objects)—containing within their placement a coded meaning. In art, the position of hands proposes an alternative dictionary of sentiments: signals of blessing, tenderness, surrender, warning. They speak. Sometimes, we catch a glimpse of these familiar gestures at the end of our own arms; the form of our hands becomes an echo of the ‘visible word’ used wrongly. For example, mundane movements (lifting a glass, smoothing sheets, pushing open a door) that recall those we have seen in pictures: pressed against a heavy garment or adorned with rings (nobility), a flower dangling from thin fingertips at the end of a drooping wrist (romance), penetrating the pages of a book (intellect), the contortion of a raised palm (faith). Flashbacks triggered by involuntary mimicry. The silhouette of a hand acts as the reference—closer to the pageantry of a shadow puppet than the system of sign language. The importance remains in the outline instead of the context of its movement. What it is doing does not matter. As in linguistics, when two words that sound the same mean different things, the gestures signify like false friends.

As I am typing this, my hands hover above the keys like a pianist’s. This is different than how my hand moves when taking notes: index and middle finger pressed against my thumb in small upward and downward movements (pen in between), while my wrist tracks across the page from left to right and ink inscribes curves and lines that form words onto the surface below. Both are gestures of writing, though the words are not the movement of the hand—they are the result. I am concerned here with how the hands are poised, not by what they do. How their positions can appear to express something else conceptually unrelated but formally alike. What happens if we surrender to misunderstanding?

I find myself studying certain artworks whose depictions of hands reference different mythological narratives. For example, a hand wrapped by a black asp, the viper that killed Cleopatra; a hand suspended above its reflection, like Narcissus; hybrid figures and chimeric beings that possess human bodies and do not have hands, but instead wings and claws. Each of these hands tell us something; they allude to motifs that belong to much larger volumes. They are hands that communicate without writing words. And yet, the evolution of gestures that comprise writing—carving, scripting, typing—contain a material connection to how each artist gives image to myth. They implicate the hand as both storyteller (hand as subject) and maker (hand as process) in works that mimic acts or sources of writing. In their stillness, we can read them. Here, in three movements.

[1] R. A. Markus, “St. Augustine on Signs.” Phronesis 2, no. 1 (1957): 60–83.

Arno Rafael Minkkinen, Fosters Pond, 2000

Courtesy of the artist & WILLAS Contemporary

Guido Reni, Cleopatra, ca 1640, 110x94 cm

Courtesy of Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Movement No. 1: Writing on Water

A black and white composition of a hand rises from a mirror-like expanse of placid water, dramatically curved at the wrist like a swan’s neck. Between its fingers: a pen. The tip of the instrument and the hand (presumably the artist’s, a self-portrait) hovers above the surface reflected with perfect clarity. In the distance, a backdrop of blurred pines spans the horizon. If the hand were to lower the tip of the pen onto the sheet of the pond, the reflection would break in a symphony of ripples. Perhaps the ink would suspend for a moment, like an oil spill, before dissolving into the runoff. It is an image of writing that allows no possibility for a text to be produced. The action of the hand—a disembodied and stagnant Narcissus—belongs to its non-dominant, off-screen counterpart. That is, the hand whose finger presses the shutter of the camera. Enacting the gesture of the hunter that fell in love with his reflection, the hand remains caught in the act. In this signal, a portrait of vanity that depends on inertia, everything is left unsaid.

Vanna Bowles, Abandoned Moments, 2021, Serie of 28 pencil drawings, each drawing 20 x 20 cm.

Courtesy of the artist and Kunstplass Contemporary Art [Oslo]

Chirogram from John Bulwer's Chirologia, 1644

Found via Victor Stoichita

Movement No. 2: Holding Death

An asp—the venomous viper most famously depicted in lore surrounding the death of Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile—wraps around the fingers of an outstretched palm. It is drawn upon a piece of white paper, pinned to the wall, like a specimen. In Greco-Roman times, the bite of the snake was the favored execution tactic for notable criminals. In Egypt, it was a symbol of royalty. Here, the small lithe body of the killer gently writhes around the subject’s fingers. Tenderly enveloping the raised right hand, the image functions as an oath—we can imagine the left (beyond view) resting upon a bible. In Ancient Greece, the study of hand gestures used in rhetoric was known as Chironomia—meaning hands both accompanied and inflected the delivery of written speech, altering language. This hand holds a symbol of death at the same time it makes the gesture of a promise. While we do not know the crime, it broadcasts an admission of guilt. Trial and verdict collapse. As we see the confession, we also bear witness to the sitter’s last living gesture.

Sif Itona Westerberg, Fountain, 2021

Courtesy of the artist and Gether Contemporary

Sif Itona Westerberg, Fountain, 2021

Courtesy of the artist and Gether Contemporary

Movement No. 3: The Hand of God

Another movement of (early) writing: to carve. Friezes of aerated concrete, engraved in shallow reliefs, depict chimeric figures in mythographic scenes that frame various sculptures of fountains. Streams of water spout from the mouths of hybrid creatures. Instead of hands, they have wings, claws, or hooves—appendages that also carve (into the air, into the earth). Etching into the entablature, the artist’s hand performs the same act as inscribing text. Here, the stone holds images of fictional beings instead of words. Then again, the beasts that once decorated illuminated medieval manuscripts—fantasies of bodies transformed into ornamentation—were used to compose the capital letters at the beginning of a tale. In Christian tradition, text was considered holy (the word of God), while monsters could live in the margins. Centuries later, genes are now spliced, grown, and manufactured in laboratories. As scientific advances progress, the promise of hybridity—playing with the ‘hand of God’—seems not only possible, but imminent. The fountains picture fragments of post-human future as guided by our own hand.

In his book Gestures, Vilém Flusser describes: “Writing does not mean bringing material to a surface but scratching at a surface, and the Greek verb graphein proves it.” [2] As gestures, each of these images scrape upon others. They write, as I type, about other hands—reaching out to touch, to come in close contact with, the myths they reference. These subjective translations, three isolated movements by three separate artists, disclose the quotations (a type of mythology) that arise from falling for false friends.

[2] Vilém Flusser, Gestures. Trans. Nancy Ann Roth. University of Minnesota Press (1991): 19.

Stephanie Cristello is a contemporary art critic, curator, and author based in Chicago, IL. Her work focuses on artists who critically engage with the image and its role in visual culture. Through the lens of Classics and mythology, her diachronic writing practice concentrates on the intersection of ancient narratives and conceptual practice post-1960. Her research is specifically motivated by contemporary works that interrogate how language, text, and the use of poetic devices influence and shape the cultural and historical structures that surround us. She has worked internationally across a variety of platforms, including exhibitions, panels and symposia, editorial and publishing, and has contributed to numerous exhibition catalogues nationally and internationally.