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Not waving but drowning

June 10, 2013

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Have you ever seen a piece of art that changes the way you see other art that you’ve already seen before? Sorry, I know, of course you have. You’re not a robot. But anyway this is an example of that which happened to me recently.

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to see I Finally Accept Fate by Johannes Kahrs in real life. Not that I was going purposefully to view said drawing, as before I stumbled across it I didn’t even know it existed. It looks like this:

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What does your mind process when you encounter this image? Kahrs’ works are a blurry and chiaroscuro-heavy attempt at photorealism, like the subject is being painted from a paused TV screen or fuzzy monitor. But within a few seconds the interpretation of what I was seeing shifted so dramatically it was like the canvas itself had been pulled into focus.

Having only seen a limited number of Kahrs’ paintings before, I knew he did some figurative work, and wondered whether this was a collection of hand sketches on black that had been blown up and ‘promoted’ to a proper work in itself. This interpretation may seem a strange conclusion to automatically come to, but it was in no small part influenced by having also seen Nicolas de Largillierre’s Étude de Mains recently too:

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However it’s very quickly obvious that the sparse and scattered positioning of the hands – and it is only hands – cannot be serendipitous, that even the ones not touching are reacting with each other. So my next response when viewing the entire composition was that they were reaching forcefully, but just to touch rather than grab – as if it were a display of urgency restrained by politeness. When I read that the image is actually of Al Gore and wife Tipper descending a staircase moments after hearing that he’d lost the US presidency to George W Bush in 2000, that interpretation made a lot of sense.

I don’t have the original image, and I don’t recall seeing it in the papers at the time, but I don’t need to. As soon as you know what the photograph is, as soon as you know the moment and the historical significance captured within, you can easily fill in the blankness around the hands. You can see the look of defeat behind the smiles of Al & Tipper, walking with repressed resignation through the throng clapping, snapping, straining to shake hands with them, being held back by security as they surge towards the couple. Or, as the text next to the work put it, Kahrs has left “only the tension and disorder of highly expressive decontextualized gestures which contain a mute violence.” As soon as the viewer is given the political event to align the part-obscured image with, the emotiveness of the situation falls into place.

But did I need that piece of information? My brain seemed to make certain gut reactions about the emotional charge of the moment taking place before knowing what it was, all just from the hands. Was it just coincidence that this reading of their positioning was sort of right? Or – and this is coming from a fervent non-believer in chiromancy – can certain feelings be expressed with neither the viewer nor the viewed consciously intending them?

I ask because, shortly before finding this drawing, I was thinking about the work of Perth-based artist Anna Dunnill. Despite (or perhaps because of) being a multimedia artist, Dunnill’s work always strikes me as being collage, even when it technically isn’t; much of the detail in her art is striking but scattered, like intricate fragments spread out in a way that makes whatever surface they’re on feel like a dense, blank void. And in many cases those details are hands.

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Having seen Kahrs’ work, I suddenly realised I’d been making certain assumptions about the hands in Dunnill’s pieces without being consciously aware of it. Take the above image, a detail from Notes Towards A Universal Language. Perhaps because they look like they’ve been sourced from elsewhere, I didn’t assume that the hands were autonomously roaming Addams Family-style around the landscape Dunnill has constructed for them, and their photographic-looking nature meant I involuntarily wondered what the whole image they had been sourced from might have captured. But I wasn’t aware my brain was doing this, nor that it had automatically come to the conclusion that the hands emerging from the depths of the page were…well, desperate. Urgently but desolately lunging out for a hand to grab them back. I had gathered, basically, that they’re the drastic reaches from someone drowning in the work.

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Why the hell did I think that? Why the hell did I even think that when viewing the above work from the Transitional Objects series, even though it looks like the hand is grabbing onto something, thus suggesting a glimmer of hope? And why the hell did it take until seeing I Finally Accept Fate to question why I even assumed that at all?

Let’s compare it to, for instance, John Heartfield’s The Hand Has 5 Fingers:

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Even before you know the historical context and importance of Heartfield’s work, and before you know what the poster was trying to persuade the viewer to do (i.e. vote for the Communist Party), I would be surprised to hear anyone say the hand look desperate. It feels assured, imposing, aggressive even. It feels bold even before you read the text below it: “with five fingers, you can catch the enemy.”

Or does it? Being so used to seeing Heartfield’s collages, and knowing their significance during that period of 20th century Europe, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t associate his work with confrontation and defiance. Was the size and shape of the hand, its gesture separate from the body and dominating the composition, enough for me to read such feelings into it? Or did I take on the image and associations simultaneously before really being able to judge the hand’s gesture by itself?

These are, effectively, the same questions I ask when considering Dunnill’s work, because I first became aware of the hand motif in her practice after reading her zine Okay Ampersand #4. It is, by the way, an incredible zine. It’s the zine I now think about whenever I even slightly start to wonder whether spending so much time on ‘defending zine culture’ is actually worthwhile, because it quickly reminds me that it totally is. And because of its content (which I won’t go into here, as it feels more appropriate to let the zine explain for itself), it is utterly emotionally devastating. It’s about reaching out and holding on, and makes the way my mind interprets the hands in her work feel entirely fitting.

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So, I’ve forgotten which came first. Do I react to the hands in Dunnill’s work as desperately stretching out into emptiness for help because that’s something I also found in the zine? Or did I see it in them before I had that association forever inextricably linked? I don’t know, it’s too late to recall. And probably too late for you too, now…sorry about that.

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Anna Dunnill’s exhibition Notes Towards A Universal Language will be at Paper Mountain in Perth between 5th – 20th of July. Okay Ampersand #4 can be purchased from Aunty Mabel’s Zine Distro here.

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