Bruce Nauman’s installation at Donald Young Gallery centers around simple gestures: fingers on both hands are flexed and touched together in different combinations. A video projected on a screen shows the artist’s hands doing this, while speakers embedded in the walls around the screen emit voices describing the gestures being enacted, “Right hand, thumb and first finger, left hand thumb.” And so on.
To most viewers, the permutations of fingers being curled and uncurled appears at first meaningless, until one of Bruce Nauman’s hands gives you the middle finger or gives you the “rock on”/sign of the horns gesture, both of which are close to and frequently confused with the gesture for “I love you” in American Sign Language. That flash of transgression leads to a moment where the viewer realizes an absolute arbitrariness of the signifier; why should extending a middle finger be antagonizing? There are so many phrases that describe this single finger raised in the air: flipping the bird, flicking someone off, the New York hello, etc. Why do we allow this one finger to have so much power over us? It may be considered obscene historically, because the ancient Greeks and Romans did, but why was it obscene to them? And why do we continue that tradition? Perhaps it is the desire for simple communication, even if it is of the lowest sort. After all, we need some way to tell a cabbie he’s terrible at his job while going 75 miles per hour down the freeway.
The negative connotations of being given the finger prompt one to recognize that they understand only a single gesture, perhaps two or three more. To those fluent in sign language there may be a myriad of other communications being made, not all of them negative in the least, though likely garbled following Nauman’s seemingly random patterns. While the middle finger only says one thing, these other communications are extremely productive, allowing the deaf community to communicate through the American Sign Language system. But, ASL aside, other gestures remain abitrary combinations of fingers and narration.
As one recognizes their inability to understand any further gestures, the exercise becomes a potent allegory for art making itself—that art is not always understandable to everyone; there are meanings and signs beyond comprehension. The trembling hands of Nauman displayed straightforwardly double this perception; this is not a precious object that would traditionally be understood as Art and the irony of its “handmade” status becomes heavy here. No doubt if this video projection is shown in a museum to the general public, it would drive a fair share of visitors from the gallery muttering derision. They cannot recognize the art.
-Abraham Ritchie, Editor ArtSlant Chicago
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