Staying in Touch

Dr Marta Zboralska looks at embodied expressions of vicinity and exchange in this piece about hands and performance.

I have been spending a lot of time on my phone. Scrolling through TikTok, I came across the ‘gesture challenge’: rhythmically gesticulating a sequence of emojis, as if you were dancing with your hand – just one – instead of your feet. I was reminded of Yvonne Rainer’s Hand Movie (1966).

See Yvonne Rainer Hand Movie from Performa on Vimeo.

Hand gestures have long played a signifying role in artworks. In a Christian icon, it is the hand raised in a blessing that makes Christ readable as the Pantocrator. Giorgio Agamben has described this as the gesture’s ‘communication of a communicability’.* ‘I am a sign!’, the gesture seems to exclaim. ‘Read me!’

One of art history’s most recognisable hand gestures appears in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. There is a symbolic dimension to the fresco: it is a painting about humanity. But it is also, without doubt, a painting about touch. It relies on the palpable tension between two outstretched fingers, the expertly depicted state of almost-but-not-quite touching.

When they are held, hands indicate varying degrees of intimacy. At the more detached end of the spectrum, the handshake symbolises a formal, distant kind of familiarity. And yet, beyond its iconography, it is also a hug once removed – direct skin contact. If you were wearing gloves, you would take them off before shaking someone’s hand.

In Handshake Ritual, part of her Touch Sanitation Performance (1979-1980), Mierle Laderman Ukeles set out to shake hands with every employee at the New York City Department of Sanitation. Moving beyond the imaginary realm of hands whose ‘dirty’ work means that we can feel more ‘clean’, Ukeles’ ritual acknowledged the workers in a physical, haptic way. She recognised their bare hands as the hands in which collective responsibility lies quite literally and visibly: the individual hands of collective responsibility. Her handshake was more than just a ‘nice gesture’.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles from Artforum on Vimeo.

It was accompanied by a verbal expression of gratitude: ‘Thank you for keeping New York City alive’. Here the word ‘alive’ is figurative, in the sense of metropolitan motion and liveliness, and simultaneously tangible: what keeps the public, all of us, alive are not only clean hands, but the hands-that-do-the-cleaning.

As we try to reconcile social distancing with constant thoughts about our hands (wash your hands for twenty seconds, do not touch your face), Ukeles reminds us of the need to stay in touch with each other: to think beyond the gesture.

* Giorgio Agamben, ‘Notes on Gesture’ in Means Without End: Notes on Politics, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p. 58.

Further Readings:

  • Agamben, Giorgio. ‘Notes on Gesture’ On Means Without End: Notes on Politics. Translated by Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino, 48-59. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
  • Molesworth Helen (ed.). Dance/draw. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz/Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art, 2011.
  • Nancy, Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural. Translated by Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Byrne. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Marta Zboralska recently completed her PhD on the studio of Henryk Stażewski and Edward Krasiński.