Hands, art, sculpture (2003)

Glenn Harper
artdesigncafé - art | 15 April 2011
The following is the text for a lecture in November 2003 at a symposium on computer-generated sculpture at the Department of Art, Brooklyn College, New York organized by Karin Giusti.

Toland Grinnell on curators and dealers, “art-world figures with their hands on the levers of power…who just recently bought cell phones and don’t yet know how to use the speed dial.. They are still trying to impose rules and expectations on art.”

A 2001 Panelist in the Computers and Sculpture Forum said VR and CAD modeling gives him the ability to ignore gravity while creating his work. Audience member said, well, yeah, that’s drawing.

Tony Smith called in the specs to a steel manufacturer for Die— over the telephone.

Jacques Lipchitz was profiled for Life magazine late in his life, and they wanted to photograph him working on a monumental sculpture. They put him up in a bucket truck to chisel on the head, and in the resulting photograph, it’s obvious that he has neither been off the ground nor had a chisel in his hand in years.

One of the creators of a rapid prototyping machine told the Boston television news, on the occasion of the Boston Cyberarts Festival, “When I meet a sculptor, I’m fond of saying, Oh, You’re a sculptor? I thought there were machines for that now.”

The phenomenologists talk about the world “at hand,” and “grasping” as a notion of incorporating the material of the world into the understandable reality of everyday life—but everyday life is actually a mental construct rather than a material reality. I can give you an example from archaeology. The French anthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan was looking at the cave paintings in the south of France and elsewhere, and trying to make sense of the handprints that are on the walls along with the animal paintings. Some caves are mostly handprints rather than paintings. The handprints are made like stencils: a hand was placed against the wall and paint was sprayed (most likely spit) over the area, leaving a print when the hand was removed. Artists and others have usually understood the handprints as the primal gesture of the hand— I am here, I’m doing this and leaving a record of it. Some Neo-Expressionist artists of the 1980s used the image explicitly, to portray themselves and their work as “genuine” or “authentic” in the same sense that outsider artists are often described using those words: there were several exhibitions subtitled with a description of the artist as a “paintspitter.” But Leroi-Gourhan wasn’t satisfied with that notion of a primal act, the pre-linguistic, essential, I am here! Many of the handprints are missing fingers, and the usual explanation was animistic ritual mutilation rather than accidents, because of the frequency of missing fingers. But Leroi-Gourhan couldn’t understand why hunter-gatherers would have removed so essential a tool as a finger, regardless of the ritual significance. So he wondered, what if the hand wasn’t pressed against the wall palm first, but palm out. Raising the possibility that the fingers weren’t missing, they were simply shifted down out of the way. He did a statistical analysis of the hands and the various missing digits, in comparison to the distribution of animal species in the cave paintings, and found a direct correspondence between specific hand gestures and specific animals— and more than that, the hand gestures corresponded more or less with signals still used in Bushmen cultures to warn fellow hunters silently of animal ahead of the group. So the primal, authentic gesture of the hand is really already a complex system of metaphors: a language— it is already infected with the inauthenticity of the social rather than the solitary hunter, the very image of the solo artist in his garrett. The hand gesture already has what phenomenology calls intentionality: the embodiment (literally, embodiment or incarnation) of the mind’s intention, in the context of the social web of everyday reality.

Another notion from phenomenology more specific to aesthetics makes a further distinction: there is a difference in kind between the object and the art object, with any work of art. The object may be made through the engagement of the artist with both materials and ideas, but the final, material thing is merely the object. The art object is the idea or communication that emanates from the object, not the material thing itself. The art object is the intentionality of the object.

If you look at the hand in terms of the art object and its intentionality, the grasp of the artist always looks both ways, material and intentional, and what an artist grapples with now may be material of a different sort. What I mean is that what the artist manipulates (and the hand is there in that word, again) or the facture of the object (and facture is the root of the word manufacture, there’s the hand again) may be mediated not by a chisel but by a contemporary order of technology instead. Other than the form of the mediation, nothing essential is changed in the interaction between artist, object, and art object.

Craft, or hand-made consumer objects generally, have a different intentionality, a different frame of reference from the art world and the hand is still very important, very valuable (literally) in that context. (Grinnell uses this notion of value in his work, inserting a critical distance into the hand-work’s intentionality and bringing it into the art world.) In the art world, the hand is one tool. Karin Sander’s work makes that explicit, and comparison with Tomoaki Suzuki highlights the possible differences in the meaning and use of the hand.

In lieu of a conclusion, I want to quote from John Isherwood’s comments on the use of computer-numerically controlled technology because he is very explicit about the relation of the hand to the tool. (from Sculpture, volume 23 no.7, p. 44) “The hand, the grasp, the feel, the touch are essential. There are certain tools or extensions of the hands that make appropriate marks. But it is very easy to lose the sense of the hand in a sculpture. It’s not just marks, it’s the scale, the proportion, and many other things. Tools can go against the sensation of the hand. What looks right doesn’t feel right. Sometimes tools create marks that go against the intention of the hands. The machine can easily misinterpret the hand. I need to run my hands over a piece to determine if it is really finished. The sense of touch is crucial to the process, the circulation from hand to eye to brain.”