Les Gestes Morts (The dead gestures)

“For princes, who by reason of their dignity, make themselves understood by signs rather than words” – Giovanni Bonifaccio *

The principal idea behind Maria Isabel Arango’s polymorphic project is the activation of the archive of images that the artist has collected in a plastic form, a book filled with photographs of hand gestures that leave us questioning their presence and reason. What are they linked to? Are they timeless, universal or just human? Can they lie or, on the contrary, are they the only ones that always speak the truth?

The images come from the artist’s processing of reports of the Colombian peace process that appeared in the local and international media; they have been sorted by the intention behind the gesture: conviction, reservation, reprimand, temperance, dissuasion, reiteration, etc. The project has then evolved to manifest in other formats: publishing, performance, drawing and installation.

The hand, at the centre of sense and composition.

For the book, the starting point was to spend time on the aspect and the role of the hand movements of the women and men on the international political scene, those who represent the law, authority and the shared future of the world’s inhabitants.

When working on these images, Arango also makes a contradictory gesture: she specifically selects images from a well-determined context and then systematically extracts them. By doing so, Arango refocuses the documentary lens onto the hands of the politicians and civil servant. She cuts twice, changes the format and puts a detail of the image in close up.

The gesture takes centre stage.

The new frame of the performancere-establishes and amplifies the theatricality of the gesture. This is true in Brecht’s theatre, where, on stage, gestures are movements that interrupt and push aside the progression of the dramatic action. In the Los gestos muertos (The dead gestures) the same will to purify the image and remove the sensation comes from the character and a distance is created in order to focus on the essential.

The theatricality, on the other hand, lies in the fact that the action and the protagonist of these events are temporary;they form an ephemeral instant that can repeat itself, thus making any space a theatrical one and any person the possible author of the gesture.

Semantic subtext.

If photography is an ideal tool for documenting the contemporary gesture, it is still useful to search the immense records of universal art. The important idea is that the gesture in art history is codified. To study the gesture in the moment is to experience it but to speak about it is to stop its trajectory and codify it. What are we talking about? An attitude, a pose, a movement? A gesture with a symbolic function? Does interpreting contemporary body language require specific knowledge of behavioral science, scientific language and semiotics? Is it iconisation or a reflection on media aesthetics? What is the psychological charge in this case?

The hand as a way of saying.

We entertain a relationship that is more ambiguous with our hands than we realise and, with the technical nature of our societies always growing, our hands seem to be atrophying. Although, with the invention of machines to replace or simplify manual functions, mainly in writing work, they resemble artificial hands more and more, yet as tools of speech they remain ever pertinent. Arango sets down the language, goes between the natural and the conventional gesture and stays spectacularly innovative in the reading of new signs and codes. As Charlotte Wol writes in The Psychology of the Gesture, the hand is the “seismograph of human affectivity” and the “authentic face of the personality”.

Gesture and organic memory.

The hand gesture is the pre-language and the origin of the written word. It is with mime that man first expresses himself. It is because of mime that thought functions. In his Anthropology of Gesture (1969) Marcel Jousse, in the introduction to his theory, asks the following question: “How does man, placed in the centre of the perpetual actions of the universe, react to these actions and retain the memory?” The gesture, the position of the hands, their relationship with themselves and other parts of the body are there attesting to our intellectual disposition. The gesture is the mime of a cerebral activity that not only makes the activity visible, but also activates memory and communication.

The gesture is always re-interpretable, reversible.

But then, does the political context of the gesture – much more controlled and measured – falsify the link? The animating force contained in body language is just as reversible because it’s also thanks to the thought process that the gesture is made. It’s also logical to imagine that if the hand gesture is less intuitive, then it’s more of a manipulator. Yes, politics is theatre. Of course, the political actor uses and abuses non-verbal communication and body language. Even if the citizens are conscious of these manipulations through the media, it isn’t easy to decrypt them. The expressive gesticulations are part of a whole and remain deeply linked to the discourse, a person, a more or less hidden will.

The more we interrupt someone in action, the more gestures we can obtain.

Therefore, things must be separated. The political and theatrical gesture is a language made visible, a very efficient “dumb eloquence”. As for the gesture transfixed in its trajectory, petrified in time and space, cut off from perceived empathy – the dead gesture – it is no longer a language, barely a sign. It is profoundly mysterious, abstract and wild. The dead gestures are at that place where the gesture is not yet/no longer useful, but simply a form created by the hand.

Caroline Montenat, September 2017.

(1547 – 1635) Padoue, Italie, author of « The Art of gestures, or thanks to a language that has become visible, the mute eloquence, the talkative silence.