“Man is the wisest of living being because he has a hand. The hand is man himself”, said Greek philosopher Anaxagoras. This affirmation aroused the ire of Aristotle, who provided an antithetical response: “Man’s endowment with hands is the consequence rather than the cause of his superior intelligence”.
Before we discover our face we see our hands. Of all the parts that make up that which we call our body, the hand is the first appearance of our self to ourselves, and it is also our first messenger. Bringing the hand to our mouth or touching our parent’s face, it is the first physical inkling of something we call ours, our first exploratory envoy into the outer world. Our hand elicits our earliest spark of consciousness, that moment of vertigo in which we see what we are and become our own object of contemplation. It is not by chance that John Coplans calls the image of his hand his “self-portrait.”
Because of our hands, we discover that we have a body and that this body is tangible, and that the universe around us, just like our body, has consistency and skin. Through the first vision of our hands we separate thought from appearance, and learn that we can move into the world wilfully and willingly. We translate ourselves into our hand: we learn to express ourselves through its gestures. We point, we ask, we stroke, we hit, we scratch, we caress, we beckon, we reject, we fashion, we mold and we create, we give our hand to signify the opening of ourselves to others so that others may know us through this forerunner of ourselves. We speak of knowing something “as well as the palm of your hand”.
In many religions, the earliest representation of the divinity was the hand. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, since no one was allowed to see the face of God and live, God was represented by a hand issuing bodiless from the heavens, blessing or cursing the world. For Islam, particularly in the Shia tradition, the divine hand represented all that was most holy: the quintet of fingers that included the Prophet himself, his daughter Fatima, his son-in-law Ali, and his grand-sons Hassan and Hussein. Such hands are common in amulets, murals and calligraphic inscriptions throughout the Islamic world even today. The divine hand encapsules the divine omnipotence.
As part of the body, the hand has its own language, making explicit or betraying our intentions. Throughout the ages, a careful vocabulary of the hand was developed in many cultures to explain the body to our fellows: the codified gestures of Romanesque art, the symbology of Byzantine iconography, the charades of court ceremony, the obligations of religious liturgies, the sigh language of Buddha, the two-finger Egyptian benediction that mirrors the later benediction of Christ, the ritual movements of Balinese choreography, the gigantic hand-gestures of Eskimo folklore, the articulation of Kathakali drama, the rituals of Noh theatre, the snake-like motions of Polynesian dance, the threats and warnings of Maori warfare. The hand speaks.
The negligent hand of Philip IV holding an unread letter in Velasquez’s portrait tells us more about the royal despondency than the superficially austere demeanour; the open hand on the knight’s breast painted by El Greco says “I” to the viewer more clearly than any label; the Mona Lisa’s hands hide the sitter’s secret in a gesture more tantalizing than any explicit action.
Whether in the delicate movement of Vermeer’s pearl-weighter or in the quotidian gestures of Yokoo Tadanori’s women, the hands are not an object of contemplation but subject of the action it else: they lead away from themselves to something else, they detach themselves from the body and perform their own tasks.
The hand already has the shape of the object it wants to hold, of the movement it wants to make. Performed by the hand as perceived by the eye, everyday gestures become creations, as in the arrangements of Yukio Nakagawa, the imprints of Gabriel Orozco, the touch of Giuseppe Penone, or the trivial movements of Rinko Kawauchi. Domesticated and trained, the hand draws, writes, plays instruments, sculpts, engraves, tattoos, drums, inscribes, strums, sews, wields, embroiders, chips, types, paints, sign its name, takes possession of the world it creates as Vik Muniz, Ryoko Aoki, Corinne Sentou and John Maeda make explicit, fashioning hands that fashion hands. When Rachmaninoff was told that he was dying of cancer, his first reaction was to bid farewell to his hands. His hands, not himself, were the condemned artists.