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26 July, 2018

WHAT SHOULD I DO NOW, WITH MY HANDS?

Blue Oyster Art Project Space
Ōtepoti Dunedin, Aotearoa
11 July - 4 August, 2018

 

Image 01: Beth Caird, Epyllion, 2018.
Image 02: Beth Caird, Hey Daddy Hat Review, 2018, HD Video (03:09).
Image 03: Beth Caird, What should I do now, with my hands? (detail), 2018, HD Video (02:28).
Image 04: Beth Caird, What should I do now, with my hands? (install), 2018, HD Video (02:28).

Artist: Beth Caird

It’s a funny thing about hands.
Hands are for holding. That’s a greeting card – right?
For gripping things, maybe, or hanging on for dear life. They might tap out a text message.
...
Thx.
...
I’m home now hbu.
...
The last text message I sent was: helllllllo.
I put a little hand emoji next to it. Waving. A friendly hand.

Hands might have a life of their own though.

I notice academic women often say: ‘oh, I talk with my hands – sorry about that’. People reduce high European intellectuals to their hands: ‘his hand gestures are just so distracting!’. I suppose when you’re giving a serious idea you don’t give it with your hands. You give it with your words and voice. If that’s all people can say about Zizek – something about his hands – maybe they don’t like men who do some things like women do. Like move their hands about. It looks like a tic with men, doesn’t it?

We have a ‘3 Minute Thesis’ competition at uni. The PhD students have to present a pithy version of their work in 3 minutes. ‘They have to have an elevator pitch – after all,’ somebody says to me. I think back in emojis – that one where the woman has her hand over her face in despair: facepalm. When the students present their pitches, they are told by the judges: ‘don’t use your hands so much’ or ‘only use your hands to punctuate a point’or ‘don’t move your body all over the place; stand still’. You have to stand pretty still to be taken seriously.
Like a barrister.
Or an MP.
Only use your hands to punctuate a point.

Beth Caird’s exhibition at Blue Oyster Art Project Space starts with a point. Her artist statement opens with this quote from Renata Adler:

What is the point. … Sometimes the point is really who wants what … Sometimes it’s who’s at fault or what will happen if you do not move at once … But if you are, for any length of time, custodian of the point – in art, in court, in politics, in lives, in rooms – it turns out there are rear-guard actions everywhere (New York Review of Books, 1972)

Adler goes on: ‘The point has never quite been entrusted to me’. Maybe that’s the thing that she is getting to (I wouldn’t say – I daren’t say – that’s her point). Do women get to hold down a point – in time and place? Or are their hands outstretched and trying to hold on tightly while somebody else ‘move[s] at once’ to take up that point and position? For Caird, male artists hold out points in Australian art history. Their hands take up and paint a point in time and space. Her voiceover to the video work Rules for leaving a small town (2015) muses that Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker are, well, pointless to her:
It’s not Sidney Nolan for me.
She says this over images of swirling, vertiginous Australian and New Zealand landscapes mashed up with stifled family dinner scenes. No – it’s not Nolan for her. Caird’s images don’t stand still like Nolan’s.

You have to stand pretty still to be taken seriously.

He might be pointless to Caird, but His work – if we can think of Nolan and Tucker as signifying a particular point in Australian art –become no less of a pivot for Caird. They are not for her.

That’s making a point about men’s art, right?

Maybe. But Caird swivels fast. Next, she’s ‘gazing back’ (her words) on women luminaries of the Antipodes and wonders about how they are memorialised. She briefly regrets not visiting Katherine Mansfield’s house-turned-museum. (now my words) It’s another funny thing isn’t it – how we might memorialise a woman in her house? Does it make a woman into a point? Are some (white, Pākehā, well-educated women) allowed to become points when other types of women are not? Caird also thinks about Chris Kraus and Louise Bourgeois. ‘I wonder who you’re made of?’, Faith Wilson’s accompanying ‘epilogue’ poem, considers who we are made of – it’s a poem to her grandmother – of missed encounters and the complicated sense of what a ‘family’ might mean.

Sara Ahmed wonders about families when she talks about points in the genealogical line in her book Willful Subjects (2014).1 She talks about how there’s something troubling to straights about how some women and queers do not take up who they are made of – and do not want to go on making points on the family line. There’s an expectation:

not only to become part of the family, a willing member, seated at the family table, but as part must become a point, willing to extend the family line, to assemble a new body. Even when a child is still a child, the parents can speak to the child about their anticipation of becoming grandparents, as if it was a fait accompli … Becoming part can mean to become another point on a line.2

Families can take lots of forms. An art canon can be like a family.

Caird’s work does not form a line. It’s a bit like what Adler was talking about when she talked about points. Maybe when women make a stake and a point, other things come in to focus; ‘rear-guard actions’. The points just don’t line up and instead of pointing us and holding us, our hands let something slip through.

Caird’s video work what should I do now, with my hands? (2018) is like when your hands stop holding on. Some of it appears to be filmed through the rear-view mirror of a moving car. Her hands hover over blurred footage, trying to pin it down in words. There are subtitles: ‘this is your left hand’, ‘this is where I left you’, ‘this is you explaining the weather’.

The catastrophic failure of words to completely hold on to things comes through in Caird’s poetry too. These are like little lists of the things we use to hold us together:

Name a star in the night sky, after another
call it “sorry”

...

Send a message that
says, “let’s just let sleeping dogs Iie,” knowing full well, that you
are the dog

Such rituals fail to make us a point in a line of Nolans, Tuckers, Mansfields and even Krauses, a line that is already laid out.

You give presents with your hands. But an idea is not a present in that way. It is not a gift. But it is about making someone or something present. Beth Caird’s work is not about punctuating a point in a line so we can move on to another ‘elevator pitch’. Her hands make present and push through neat lines and points.

Rosemary Overell is a lecturer in the Media and Communications at the University of Otago. Her most recent work considers how gendered subjectivities are co-constituted by and through mediation. She draws particularly on Lacanian psychoanalysis to explore a variety of mediated sites. In particular, she considers the intersections between affect and signification and how these produce gender. Rosemary has looked at media as varied as anime, extreme metal and reality television.


  1. Ahmed also talks a lot about hands too – in this book and her latest one Living a Feminist Life (2017). Her blog ‘A Feminist Army’ neatly summarises these ideas: https://feministkilljoys.com/2016/10/19/a-feminist-army/. 

  2. https://www.dukeupress.edu/willful-subjects, 113.