New York

Martine Syms, Notes on Gesture, 2015, video, color, sound, 10 minutes 33 seconds.

Martine Syms, Notes on Gesture, 2015, video, color, sound, 10 minutes 33 seconds.

Martine Syms

Bridget Donahue

Martine Syms, Notes on Gesture, 2015, video, color, sound, 10 minutes 33 seconds.

Martine Syms has lectured in venues as varied as the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, and, this past September, in a field on the outskirts of Storm King Art Center in New Windsor, New York. There, seated at a table with a makeshift AV setup, she played a recording of James Taylor’s 1968 ballad “Something in the Way She Moves.” The wistful vocals momentarily heightened the easy romance of a countryside evening, but then Syms began speaking of how she grew up studying her aunt—in effect transposing Taylor’s admiration of a nameless lover onto a black teenager’s observation of a role model. The song became a meditation on gesture, on the ineffable “something” that invests a body in motion with allure, authority, or authenticity. A little over a week later, Syms opened her solo exhibition “Vertical Elevated Oblique.” The title pilfers from the terminology of an early attempt to record and capture gesture, John Bulwer’s Chirologia: Or the Natural Language of the Hand (1644), describing a (decidedly Anglo-Saxon, decidedly male) public speaker standing with his hand cocked upward (Vertical) and his arm raised in line with his shoulders (Elevated) while angled forward forty-five degrees (Oblique).

For the exhibition’s centerpiece, the ten-minute, thirty-three-second video Notes on Gesture, 2015, Syms used Chirologia’s elaborate notation system as a rough guide for directing the performance of her collaborator Diamond Stingily. (Stingily’s fold-out poster Love, Diamond, 2013, appeared among the items on sale in the gallery’s back-room pop-up store for Syms’s imprint, Dominica.) Before a purple backdrop, Stingily executed a range of actions for the camera, each edited down into quick cuts and looped several times. The repetitions turned audio snippets of ambient music and Stingily’s uttered phrases—“Real talk,” “Check yourself,” “Point blank, period”—into a lurching, percussive sound track. Stingily bobbed her head, rolled her eyes, hunched her shoulders. Often only her hands appeared on-screen: pointing, admonishing, beckoning, clapping.

Notes on Gesture is only the latest indicator of a widespread concern with the “natural language of the hand,” one also evident in the hand sculptures of Josh Kline and Aleksandra Domanović; in hands sifting through archival material in videos by Camille Henrot and Ellie Ga; in the collaborative investigation of touch-screen swipes by Alexandra Lerman and choreographer Madeline Hollander; and in the parsing of hand signals in politics and finance by, respectively, Liz Magic Laser and Ben Thorp Brown. A perennial metonym for labor, the hand is now the hinge between the precariat and its devices. Much of this work, like the media theory that informs it, reduces human subjects to producers or consumers, often at the expense of considering gesture’s broader cultural dimensions. Chirologia, for instance, betrays an anxious chauvinism when Bulwer exhorts English rhetoricians to match the voluble body language of their neighbors on the Continent. Notes on Gesture deliberately mimics the stuttering rhythms of media formats like Vine or animated GIFs, yet the video’s driving question is how gesture constructs and conveys black femininity—a process that, like the loop itself, is circular.

“If we understand manufacturing as a process or context that provides repetition,” Syms has written, “then mass media allows for narratives—and subsequently, ideologies and typologies—to be industrialized.” The flat-screen playing Notes on Gesture was surrounded by C-stands and a Hollywood flat painted the same purple as the video’s backdrop. These props cast the gallery as a studio for a film shoot, though, instead of their usual spotlights and bounce cards, the C-stands held photographic prints, mostly of hands—presumably source material for Stingily’s character studies. Syms’s image selection mixed snapshots of her aunt and other relatives with magazine clippings, like a close-up on the nails of Olympian Florence Joyner. The combination of the familial and the commercial mirrors identity’s double status, as “something” inherited and shared, yet also bought and sold.

Colby Chamberlain