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The Hand – The whole man in miniature

The Third Istanbul Design Biennale 2016, Galata Greek Primary School.

Madelon Vriesendorp’s mixed-media installation The Hand is part her larger investigation of the human body. Here she interprets the human hand not only as a structural anatomy, but also as a “thinking organ,” symbol, gesture, and conceptual tool. Known for her vast collections of figurines and tchotchkes of human body parts, Vriesendorp looks at the hand as a metaphor for giving, taking, controlling, punishing, and rewarding.

The Hand – The whole man in miniature

“The hand is perhaps the most emotive (as in motion and emotion) part of the body.

The hand is our ultimate vessel for communicating symbolic meaning. Our hands are unique to our species, ‘humanique’, in that we have opposable thumbs. These allow us to use tools with great ease, which engenders in us the ability to experiment and form creative ideas of how to use those tools, and to explore abstractly, to think abstractly and symbolise, and mix different combinations of ideas ‘promiscuously’ together, beyond the objects we are manipulating.

1) Symbolic Significance 

Symbols are a means to explain everything we don’t understand as humans have a forceful urge to understand everything. It is a means of releasing sources of energy from the unconscious to understand more of our own psyche and integrating it in our conscious mind, according to Tom Chetwynd. Recognising symbols knowing that they refer directly to our mind’s patterns and processes.

Ordinary objects can have value and special significance. The struggle between feeling and thinking can be solved by recognising symbols. Symbols are a man’s ancient way of ordering this chaotic array of direct experience, assimilating it to his life and destiny.

Every child or primitive society has always known: that symbolic language works and has a vitality and significance that extends beyond conventional forms of communication.

In palmistry the hand is a map for reading the pattern of one’s life and of one’s psyche. So the correspondence between the hand and the ‘man’ reflects the correspondence between ‘man’ and the Cosmos. The thumb represents the intellect, and the will, i.e. the conscious ego. Some palmists only read the thumb. The two mounts on the hand are the Moon and Venus, and the fingers – apart from referring to the ruling planets – reflect sensuality, practicality and the cerebral. The hand’s composition relates to the Four Classical Elements, Earth, Air, Fire, Water, meaning sensation, intellect, emotion and intuition.

2) Communication: Gestures 

Different cultures have enshrined a wide panorama of meaning in hand gestures. The hand communicates for us, encoding cultural and primordial dialogue. This can be a source of miscommunication and strife, as well as reinforcing amity and non-verbal understanding.

For instance the mountza in Greek consists of extending all fingers of one or both hands and presenting the palm towards the soon-to-be-insulted person in a forward motion. In Mexico however, it can be used to say “hi” (together with waving); but when steady or moving it repeatedly towards the receiver means “You’ll see!”

3) The Hand as a Conceptual Tool 

The symbolic importance of the hand as a metaphor for giving, taking, controlling, punishing, rewarding, etcetera, shows its intrinsic position of power. This can be found in a huge array of everyday expressions, among others:

“On the one hand… on the other hand"

"Eating out of my hand"

"The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing"

"Golden handshake"

"Bite the hand that feeds you"

"Experience something first hand"

"Have the upper hand"

"Wash one hands of"

"Show your hand"

"One hand washes the other"

"Heavy handed”

4) Structural Anatomy 

The muscles in the thumb give the strength and control to its movement. Compared to other primates, the human thumb is much longer in proportion to the rest of the hand. The two types of grip is vital to the process of tool making, according to Dr. G R Naipier. The precision and power grips are referred to as ‘cylinder’ (power) and ‘ball’ (precision) grips.

The use of tools for survival and protection allowed for the evolution of the modern human hand.

5) Holistic Knowledge: Thinking organs 

Knowledge is not only stored in the brain, its in our DNA. Guy Claxton, a neurologist exploring the new field of ‘embodied cognition’, likens the brain to a chatroom where information is shared via endocrinal means from different organs of the body. Our mind-set – thoughts and feelings – are then often informed by our bodies, as opposed to the traditional characterisation of the mind as command and control centre.

Our bodies are a “massive, seething, streaming collection of interconnected communication systems”, able to perform sophisticated computations that we either disregard or misleadingly attribute to our brains. Embodied cognition is then a holistic view of the mind and body, as one entity acting in unison.

This is a rejection of Cartesian Dualism, which held that the immaterial mind and the

material body are two completely different types of substances that interact with each other. This dualism originated in Ancient Greece, and was propounded by Christians who denigrated the body as a source of distraction and corruption, in constant need of correction. Rene Descartes then formalised this belief as an indisputable science.

We have learned since how rich our bodies are in nerves and other cells that speak to each other through chemical and electrical signals. Our hands show particular neural richness. So we now find that our hands are not the obedient servants of our minds, but rather reciprocal sources of ideas and creativity.”

Istanbul Design Biennale, 2016

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