Digital Enhancement

Bridget Hayden

The Big Issue
October 25 – 31

Artists work with their hands. So do typists and plumbers, electricians and caterers. We wash with our hands. Give and take with them. Touch and maim with them. Gesticulate with them. Play instruments with them. Hold things and carry things, let things go and pick things up. They sail along with us through out lives and tell stories along side us until we die. The state of our hands reflects the state of our hearts. They get sweaty when our hearts are full, it is also said that you can read the future in your palms. So, all things considered, they are pretty significant.

The laws of eternal return suggest that the act of giving someone else a gift is equal in karmic value to the act of accepting one. Sheila Gaffney offers you the hands of the people who offered their hands to her. Around a thousand sat in total, sat opposite her for an hour of so, giving away stories from their lives while she cast every delicate line in plaster, completing a circle of exchanges which will go on and on rotating, and using hands themselves, the very instruments of giving and receiving, to demonstrate this fundamental point of life.

After casting them in plaster, each hand cast was moulded in wax. Fragile and vulnerable, this has been Sheila’s favourite material since she started her career as a sculptor in the eighties. It’s delicate nature is an antithesis to more traditional and more masculine substances like bronze, which seem determined to laugh in the face of nature by being so defiantly permanent.
It was a time consuming process for which she called in the assistance of a small team of helpers, mostly students from the college where she teaches to assist in the process. So during the period when Locale was being produced, her studio at Dean Clough was no longer a haven for solitary artistic naval gazing, but a buzzing grotto of eager beavers learning the process of casting as part of ‘New Deal’.

The result of three years planning, thinking, finding funding and making Locale is a glowing mass of pink, you’ve guessed it, hands. Some with palms facing upwards, others downwards. Each one serves as a portrait of the sitter. Fixed onto a thick wooden wall, a defensive structure, designed to keep people in or out, depending on which side of it you find yourself, they offer up themselves unconditionally, all apart from one pair, which look decidedly uncomfortable. I ask Sheila about these tensed up fingers. “Oh, she was interesting. She didn’t like it at all. She had healing hands, and they heated up so much during the casting that that plaster started to steam”. She knows whose hands belong to who.

The most striking thing about the work is that the vulnerability of each human being is spelt out in every little detail. There is a ‘Please do not touch’ sign present, but for once it seems unnecessary. You just wouldn’t want to touch this piece because it’s fragility induces enough respect to keep clumsy real hands well away. And besides, you would feel that you were reaching out to touch the hands of someone who didn’t know who you were, almost like taking advantage of someone in a weaker position than you.

Gaffney has reversed the traditional sculptural approach, and instead of displaying the firmness and ‘courage’ of a person’s illusory defensive shell she has chosen to display what it is to be human.

Apart from everything else, Gaffney’s work emphasizes a need to return to our own individual forms of manual labour. We’ve spent a long time looking outside ourselves for answers that could be found in our own practical expression. Cerebral activities can leave the creative urge famished. And through the work itself and the long production line that lead up to it, she has treated the gift of anothers hand with all the care it takes to treat another person’s heart.
Locale Essay