Tag Archives: Cindy Sherman

Symbolism of hands and/or feet

How does it look when searching for ‘hands’ and ‘feet’ in social media?

Pinterest: Hands and Feet

Instagram: 5 Mio hits on ‘hands‘ and 10 Mio hits on ‘feet

Google: 9 Bio hits on ‘hands‘ and 1 Bio hits on ‘feet‘, and the results become more interesting when combined with ‘gesture’ : ‘hands gesture‘ and ‘feet gesture

What it tells me, that hands and feet are so abundant and present in our cultures around the world, that they play an important part of how we interact socially with each other. More than just mere body parts, they are part of identity. Hands and feet telling a story of the person, how they behave, how they live.

Hands are more connected with openness, the clean aspect, the head with a sacred aspect, and feet with the dirty ground, the unclean, the filthy aspects, eg. in Thailand it is rude to show the sole of the feet, and in Arab countries it is rude to show the shoe. The feet, the bottom of the body is the lowest rank, what adds the meaning to washing one’ s feet signifies humility and servanthood, to be second to another person. Christ as the sacred king subordinating himself to others.

Hand gestures are constrained by cultural conventions. Gestures are pre-lingual, infant start to explore the world with gestures, hand gestures do point and sign, they give meaning to content, and often lingual words derive from gestures. Hand gestures become a cultural secret language as today emojicons, signs for conventions. What is fine in one culture can be rude in another. Cultural appropriation need to consider differences. From my own experience and life in various countries and cultures, I became more humble to non-verbal expressions. At times hard to distinguish, other times one way to engage with people. But always with an attitude of not knowing how it might be perceived.

Besides hands and feet, body gestures and facial expression do also play a social role. Overall, we as human beings do communicate through many verbal and non-verbal channels. At the end it seems so complex, that eventually the wholeness of a person becomes the Gestalt that one perceives. The Gestalt that actually made its turn in art through Minimal Art.

Comparing and Contrast

At my visit to the National Portrait Gallery, London I came across her work Malala, 2018 (NPG 7052),  a photographic work of Shirin Neshat (b. 1957), an Iranian visual artist living in the USA. Malala Yousafzai (b. 1997) is an activist and recent Nobel Prize Winner. Yousafzai fights for human rights and especially the right of education of girls. During an attack in 2012 she was shot in her head, and fortunately recovered.  In the NPG her portrait was a focus point of attention to the vast amount of visitors walking through.

Neshat manually inscribed on the photographic print, the area of the unveiled skin, a poem by the Pashto poet Rahmat Shah Sayel, 2011. Whereas, in a second photograph (NPG 7053), not on display at NPG, the inscription is in the background, leaving the skin ‘untouched’. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find translations of the poetry, leaving me with the graphic and rhythmic appeal of an additional visual layer. For Neshat, poetry is a cultural heritage of importance, of cultural identity, poetry as a philosophical and mystic dimension of life (Bates, 2013). Interestingly, compared to her ealier series ‘Women of Allah‘, 1993-97 where she inscripted poems of female writers during the Islamic Revolution talking about their role and ‘martyrdom’, she took for ‘Malala’ the poem of a male writer.

She addresses questions of gender and conflicts from her remote place considering the life of women in Iran. The veil for women was enforced in Iran in 1983 after the Islamic Revolution. Before women did walk through the streets as men, unveiled. Neshat places through her photograph portraits women in a position of power, empowered by poems, and with a direct gaze, at times rather deadpan faces, towards the camera aka the viewer of the images. The gaze in reference to the prevailing conception of the male gaze is returned back, challenging the objecthood of women.

According to Young, Neshat appropriated four symbols reflecting Western conceptions of the Islamic World: the veil, the gun, the text and the gaze. Her use of B&W images puts more focus on symbolic meanings and less on portrait emotions. Overall, one could consider her works as a dialogue with conflicts and paradox situations, questioning conceptions of the role of an Islamic woman (Young, 2015) 

Another interesting photograph with a visual pun is her work  My House is On Fire, from The Book of Kings series, 2012 , as if the hand’s force on the breast created those graphic words.

Compared to Neshat bold women portraits, Douglas Gordon (b. 1966) uses split video sets in his workThe Divided Self, 1996 (Juliá, 2012). The gap and dislocation of body parts and the tension in that space between, the invisible, the viewer can engage with the narrative of the person struggling with himself. Over time becoming clear that the artist himself is wrestling with himself, not two people. I can relate this to the earlier video work of Richard Serra Hands Tight, 1968, where two performers wrestling with hands tied together. 

Gordon visualizes in a the paradox installation of contained TV sets and the gap in between both, the conditions of human nature, the at times rather paradox mental states, the eventually could result in mental disorders of dissociative ego states, like the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, two separate persons.

Often, his duo-screen videos are installed at an angle, corner, e.g. 24 hour Psycho , 1993, what makes the viewing experience more inclusive, kind of embodied experience around one.

In the OCA discuss forum a current thread is about self – portrait in photography, the anxiety and the unease that comes along with making self-portraits photographs (considering self-portrait in the conventional sense of making a reproduction of one own’s head, face or body) Cindy Sherman (b. 1954) uses props, costumes etc. to step herself into staged personas, enacted self or cultural identities, challenging conceptions of identity and how we perceive others through a superficial appearance. She appropriates still image from movies, commercials, and even pornography. Sherman explores through the staged personas and identities question of constructive selfs and questions related to ‘aging in a youth- and status-obsessed society’ (Stigh and Doyle, 2012). How we perceive beauty and how we consider honesty through photographic imagery. At times with quite some unsettling sensations when seeing her works, e.g. Sex Pictures, 1989 – 1992.

Featured Image: 

  • Screenshot from Pinterest search ‘Hands – Art – gesture’


read more

Project 3.2: Becoming an image

Stefan513593 - Body and Image - self portraits from POP1
Before looking deeper into some artists’ works and their writing, I do wonder how I perceive body and image as of today.
The body as a vulnerable physical matter protected through a skin. Skin as I explored in previous exercise, not as clothing surrounding us in a cultural environment, but as the human skin – when naked we expose ourselves to vulnerability, physical and conceptual –  or even metaphorical. My previous works do reflect somehow this sensibility through it translucent materiality. 
How does our body reflect what we are? Is the body a self, our identity? Some reflection – using the ‘Inspiration‘ app while travelling. I took some reference to a past exhibition visit in 2016 in Zurich on self-portraits ‘Me/Not Me‘ .
visual mapping of what I know - mapping on the go

Fig. 1: visual mapping of what I know – mapping ‘on the go’


The painterly human body

to paint with = brush
   to paint on = canvas
   to paint of = object
   to paint through = performance
Being reminded of my ‘body as brush’ paintings during PoP1 as an expansion of self-portrait, made with gouache ‘ The Eyes of the Skin‘ (Schaffeld, 2016 – see featured image) – the title as reference to the book The Eyes of the Skin (2005) by Juhani Pallasmaa.
My thoughts wandering around the skin and identity, something that resonates well in the work of Boo Ritson. And body and skin reminds me strongly of touch, possibly the most intimate human sensation. Reminding me of my past exhibition visit in Basel Prière de toucher, 2016. From touching the skin to belief – reminiscence to ‘Emblemata’ and allegorical subject of the five senses in 16th and 17th century art – touching as a haptic process and experience for the blind, up to scratching the skin like a sculptural material, quite a violent act (reminding me of the symptoms of some borderline people). At the exposure of body and skin to pain and violent interventions brings me to Ana Mendieta, and even more to the performative works of Marina Abramovic and to a lesser extent to Carolee Schneeman. In found the book ‘The Body in Contemporary Art’ (O’Relly, 2009), now more fascinating for me than some time ago, with one example of Daniel Joseph Martinez Self Portrait #9  (p.182) putting his hand deep inside his stomach (manipulated photographs) – appropriating Gustave Moreau Prometheus ,1868 – what brings me possibly closer to my personal project of inside-out, the skin and the inner parts, the body and identity. 
It also reminds me of the video work ‘Pickelporno‘ by Pipilotta Rist, on that I wrote my final assignment essay for UVC, an intimate close-up view on skin and the human body at sexual intercourse transformed into psychedelic landscapes and eruption of colors. 
I found incidentally the works of the artist Yasumusa Morimura, quite close to works if Cindy Sherman or Gillian Wearing.  He stages himself in historical scenes, using appropriation through enactment as a tool to challenge
‘What is history? What is historical truth? – Yasumasa Morimura 
He started in 1985 with making self-portraits using prosthetics and cosmetics as sets assuming a role of figures that signify more than themselves (Hiji, 2018) And as a non-Western, asian man he subverts tropes and concepts of masculinity and femininity, e.g the concept of the “male gaze” .
Cindy Sherman uses her own body, make-up, prosthetics, costume and props to speak about issues around the depiction of women in society and culture. In the OCA discuss forum a current thread is about self – portrait in photography, the anxiety and the unease that comes along with making self-portraits photographs (considering self-portrait in the conventional sense of making a reproduction of one own’s head, face or body). Staging a self through a maskerade could be seen as just another selfie-persona, but could be also seen as a sensibility to draw attention to conventions we often take for granted.

The Make up Body

The artist Boo Ritson (b. 1969) merges conventional classifications of painting, sculpture, performance and photography, the final work as object though is a photograph of a sitter covered with thick paint and photographed when paint was still wet. Apparently, she had only 20min to take the photograph after painting before it dried (Davies, 2011). At first one might see these works just as body-paintings, as a make-up for a party or just for fun. I felt reminded of the video work Art Make Up, 1967 of Bruce Nauman (Tramontin, 2016) seen at the retrospective in Basel: a painterly exploration of the self, with the painted surface taken over a deferred meaning.

‘I’m not a photographer; I’m an artist who uses photography. In its raw state, my work can only be seen by me and the people I work with, so photography is essential. I can’t show my work without it.’ – Boo Ritson (Benedictus, 2007)

I am wondering whether she takes herself the photographs or does work with the photographer Andy Crawford ?(Davies, 2011) A question of copyright and ownership? Or the photographer as the assistant to execute, hired by RItson? So, not truly a collaboration? Topics, I discussed in April with Caroline Wright during London Study Day.

Her work is informed by or appropriating of American road movies.  Her series ‘Back Road Journey’s is considered by the artist as ‘unfinished’ pieces, models painted in white and halfway painted in color, reminiscence of the blank canvas (Aesthetica, 2009). The process she applied reminds me also of some works by Helen Chadwick, e.g. her ‘Wreath to pleasure’ series, photographs of living materials, decaying over time.

The paint could be considered as a skin, enclosing or concealing the layer, the body below (Saatchi Gallery). It reminds me of the plaster masks that we made at school, casted with tissues of plaster put onto the face with holes for eyes, mouth, and nose to breath, waiting till it is roughly dry and tearing if off: masks as the skin peeled off, masks to paint and to manipulate dislocated, displaced on a table, kind of externalization of what is part of oneself.  It is mentioned that she used household paint, I am pondering health topics (did she applied a protective layer underneath?). 

Raising questions what is art, what is the object of art (the final photograph? the process of painting the sitter? 

We do not see the sitter but the character they have become.- Source: davidrisleygallery.com 

The photographs do convey a creepy sense for me, reminding me of the ‘uncanny valley’, a term coined by Masahiro Mori in 1970 relating to the creation of robots with human appearance. The sensation one could have when it is not clear whether the figure in front of one is artificial or human, e.g a prosthetic hand (Schaffeld, 2017). And like the prosthetic hand Ritson’s photographed painted models seem to reside somehow between the painted skin and the human sitter. 

‘The ‘Cast’ are the people that the people I know could be, if they weren’t the people I know. They give the work its texture, like the characters in a film’. – Boo Ritson (Saatchi)

Besides the blur between disciplines, Ritson’s work also questions the relationship between the sitter, her as the painter and the paint. What does the sitter adds to the work? Does Ritson knows anything about them, and is this even relevant at all? The paint can be seen as an additional skin, a layer of closing, though it conveys more a sense of enclosure, encapsulation. Is the sitter free to escape? The ‘overpainted’ persons get a sense of fragility, like porcelain, I think due to the glossy shin of the wet paint. On the other hand, the persons are being portrait and archived forever through their masks, they will live further, even after the sitter’s death.

In other series, e.g. ‘D is for Donut‘, 2011, Ritson places the models in context, a landscape environment, adding more layers, making the painted models look more vivid, e.g Bear Creek, Alabama (Davies, 2011) or Prairie View, Texas

A slightly different approach takes Rachel Russell with her either painted models series (with context) or her performative painting (2012) as enactment of Philip Gustons’ painting, The Studio, 1969. I find it fascinating how well she translated Guston’s hues and composition into her space. Just an interesting aspect, that she didn’t appropriated Guston’s meta-picture, the painting inside the painting. In her performative painting she paints a different subject. It reminds of Levine’s work, appropriating a work in a different context, the image as such just a background ‘noise’.

Take-away and questions

  • Photography as documentation painting (resonates with some of my earlier approaches)
  • Making photographs of a work as a job of hiring a photographer, as an assistant? The reproduction bear Ritson’s name, or not? 
  • Portraiture: more about the artist or the sitter? Ritson’s work seems to sit in-between, void of personality of the sitter, and still with an uncanny sense of presence.
  • Paint as skin, as material to encapsulate, to conceal. But also to reveal new meaning, to add another deferred layer in a literal sense. The Body as skin, the skin as paint, the paint as concealing and dislocating – aspects that do intrigue me
  • Appropriation of past works, or of identities, or of context – a question to be considered and looked at deeper



  • Featured image: Paitings and photographs of me and my body imprints, done as part of daily parallel project during PoP1 (c)SJSchaffeld, 2016


read more
Follow Me

Follow my Learning Blog