Dr Ursula Szulakowska

In Sheila Gaffney’s installation, Locale , people are making their mark on the world, donating an intimate self-portrait in the casts of their own hands. These are simple replicas of that unique item of human physiology which has allowed the human species to evolve physically, intellectually and socially by means of manual labour. The casts are autobiographical. The artist has been concerned to capture the details of people’s lives, their age, gender, life-experience and, sometimes, the inherited physical similarities of members of the same family. She intends the original donors to search for their own hands on viewing the finished installation: this process of self-identification is an important inter-active aspect of the final work. The casts are mounted on a slanted, free-standing wall, painted with wax. To these are added other items which have also been cast in the artist’s workshop, such as glass fruit and door-handles.

The naturalistic elements of the sculpture are its central issue. Gaffney is not presenting merely a symbol of massed, anonymous ‘workers’, albeit heroic in their enforced labours. Instead, she is concerned with the beauty and the specificity of work which itself recasts the natural human hand into a graphic document of one particular human history, of the uniqueness of each person’s life.

Work provides an artificial world of things... within its
borers each individual life is housed

(Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition )

The installation has been created by means of a conscious trading of work for work: volunteers in the artist’s studio have laboured on a production line of hand-casts and, in return, have been taught the esoteric and difficult skills of the casting-process. The project, thus, makes ‘work’ visible, investigating the relationship between work and personal identity and status : work and the community : work and labour.

Volunteers for hand-casts, or for work on the production line, were recruited at random through the local press, radio and by word-of-mouth. The local community, thus, was drawn into the hermetic space of an artist’s work-room, in this case, Sheila Gaffney’s studio in Dean Clough, Halifax. The hands were first cast in plaster and then moulded in pink wax, a time consuming process demanding great patience from the sitter, as well as considerable skill from the artist. Hence, the sitters were forced to spend at least an hour in an artist’s studio, a place which most people would not visit otherwise. They became involved in the process of an intellectually demanding art-practice and they saw that any artistic activity is, basically, hard work. Hence, through the common necessity of labour, Gaffney provided a mutual ground of understanding between herself and the lay-public. Nor did the work cease with the installation’s change of locale from the private studio to the public gallery: the artist has simply moved her work into the gallery and is seen to go on working through-out the exhibition. On a work-table in a corner of the gallery, the finishing-process of the wax casts continues and they grow in number.

In this process, Gaffney also addresses the question of what is public, or community, art ? Although she is present as choreographer, architect and craftsperson responsible for the whole concept, nonetheless, the original subjects also have a certain ownership of this project, for they are included within it in a peculiarly intimate way. They are inter-woven with each other, with the work and with the artist in a more physical manner than would be the case in an exhibition of portrait photographs, since their sense of touch has been recorded as a bodily trace. Casting is the most ancient replication process, acting as a mirror for the sitter and giving them the opportunity to step outside their own bodies to view themselves dispassionately. The process is a confirmation of being: the proto-type of the photograph. It has always had a certain charged, magical quality, like the clay hand prints found in the first cave-paintings.

Gaffney’s intention in the present work has been to discover, as she puts it, a ‘generous aesthetic’ which gives space in the art-work for the viewer’s contribution. At the beginning of her career in the 1980s, she felt the need to define a more humanist position within contemporary art practice. In particular, she emphasised the value of the individual and
his / her life-experience against the mass culture imposed by
socio-political, commercial forces. In her own case, this involved a
re-assessment of the use of the human-figure in sculpture and the investigation of traditional materials and skills, such as plaster and wax casting processes. Gaffney’s emphasis shifted from asking the question ‘what is art’ to exploring ‘what it is to be human’ and making a space for that through her art.

Her current work is also a political assertion concerning the importance of earlier generations of manual labourers before they were replaced by digital technologies. Gaffney’s polemical text invokes the industrial history of the North-Eastern region. It recalls a similar statement on the importance of celebrating the individual’s manual labour in Tina Modotti’s photographs of workers’ hands.

Although she is not censuring the high technologies, Gaffney is uneasy about the devaluation of the tactile sense in a computerised society.
The artist is condemning the increasing alienation of human-beings from their own manual dexterity. This has resulted in a commercialised world of almost exclusively mental fabrications with uncomfortable people asking helplessly ‘But what do I do with my hands?’
Exhibition Essays