What, precisely, is a gesture? Noun or verb, the word refers to many things: bodies moving; bodies not moving but caught in relation; bodies moving in a specific, learned way; bodies moving in a specific, unlearned way? Somatic arts – dance, theater, and musical performance – obviously hinge on the gestural. Perhaps the gestural marks the residue of the individual in his chosen art form? The grand jeté is a generic balletic movement, with Natalia Osipova’s grand jetés particularly remarkable specimens of that movement, but it’s the expressive tilt of her head, the grace and poise of her port des bras that marks her dance as her own. In this way, we might begin to see the gestural as expressive beyond the form of artistic production, but also constituted by that form.
A different question: are humans the only things that can make gestures? Would you describe the swing of a robotic arm as gestural? A dog’s cocked head? A dog’s wagging tail? A conveyor belt processing apples? These light up another element of gesture: when applied to animals or machines, the term underscores their proximity to the human; the way the nonhuman can ape – can mimic – the human. This GMC advertisement demonstrates how this mimicry can trouble the distinction between the human and the machine: could we call this gestural, or is it just gesture’s mechanical avatar?
Another example of the hazy realm the gestural occupies: when speaking of representational art, we often describe as gestural a figure with a residue of movement, but when our attention turns to abstraction, the “gestural” folds back on the creator, the artist whose gestures pattern the material’s texture.
In literary practice – if we can even apply the term – could “gesture” be applied to a passage of ornate language, a piece of literary ornament, or could it only be applied to depictions of bodies in space? It may, in fact, be perverse to focus on literary gesture when so many other art forms accommodate the body’s movements more clearly. But that’s the last place I want to go in this brief précis to the colloquy. In a wonderful passage from the beginning of Bleak House, Charles Dickens demonstrates the astonishing capacity of gestural description to describe character. Described as a “mild bald gentleman,” Mr. Jellyby’s submission to his domineering philanthropist wife only becomes clear when “[he] sat in a corner with his head against the wall, as if he were subject to low spirits. It seemed that he had several times opened his mouth when alone with Richard, after dinner, as if he has something on his mind; but had always shut it again, to Richard’s exteme confusion, without saying anything.” In this, we get both Mr Jellyby’s dejection (his slumped posture), and his manner’s utter failure to break free from his body’s conditioning (interrupted incessantly, even when removed from his family circle, Mr. Jellyby has lost the capacity to interject, or, it seems, even to speak). Dickens’s capacity to flesh out his characters has long been a topic of critical interest, but here, I think, we vividly see how this fleshing out requires a careful attention to the edges of embodied space – the places where our sensed experience of the world meet that experience’s observation, that is to say, the gestural realm.
—Claire Jarvis, December 2011
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|Jónsi (gesture, installation, voice)||Allison Carruth||04.16.2010||Post|
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|Regular Gesture||Claire Jarvis||01.15.2010||Post|