The 17th-century English physician John Bulwer posited that hand gestures might comprise a universal language. This notion was later revived by 20th-century anthropologists studying the striking similarities in body languages evident across cultures. Recalling anthropological films used to record, replay and dissect the mechanics of bodily communication, Martine Syms’s video Notes on Gesture (2015) takes Bulwer as an unlikely interlocutor for exploring contemporary black female subjectivity.
Notes on Gesture, which Syms has said was inspired by Bulwer’s research, is the centerpiece of “Vertical Elevated Oblique,” the first solo exhibition for the Los Angeles-based artist, publisher, Web designer and self-described “conceptual entrepreneur.” The 10-minute loop features a young black actor with braids and red lipstick enacting clipped gestures repeatedly. Her actions illustrate a series of phrases drawn from African-American vernacular—“When you can turn hood real quick,” for instance, or “UOENO”—that periodically appear on-screen like the captions that often accompany animated GIFs. A format native to one of Syms’s professional worlds—the Internet—animated GIFs often feature snippets of movies and TV shows that can then be used as a kind of digital parlance, conveying, on image boards and in chat forums, what words alone cannot. In Notes on Gesture, Syms reproduces the looped visuals associated with GIFs, creating a stuttering, cacophonous effect.
Notes on Gesture also puts what Bulwer called “the natural language of the hand” to the test: some viewers will instantly connect the image of the actress sticking her tongue out and holding her fist up with the attitude expressed by the phrase “UOENO”; others will have to Google a translation of the slang term to grasp the culturally specific nuance of the pose. As the anthropologist Marcel Mauss theorized, countering the basic propositions made by Bulwer, gesture is not innate and universal, but a “technique of the body” shaped, like any language, by cultural forces and divisions.
If Syms’s video explores how a seemingly neutral mode of communication is contingent on race and gender, her installations elsewhere in the gallery playfully undermined the purported neutrality of the “white cube.” Syms’s cube had a purple tint: the vibrant purple backdrop in the video was echoed by a similarly hued board leaning against one wall, while the gallery windows were covered with a violet filter. Two black panthers stationed by the entryway (Syms’s aunt’s feline side-tables covered in black cladding) subtly reminded viewers that the color schemes of home decor can be charged statements of racial identity. These works are also gestures—evanescent, suggestive—forming associations in each viewer’s mind that disallow any impartial reception of “color.”
The realm of the video also opened onto the space of the room through the presence of C-stands—mechanisms used to position light modifiers and filters in film production—which gave the gallery a backstage quality. Draped with articles of Syms’s clothing (including a pair of white jeans that read along one leg, “It Bees That Way Sometimes”), the stands hold double-sided photographs of black women’s hands—motioning, reaching, tapping, grasping. This archive of gestures, collected by Syms from personal, popular and historical sources, remains in tension with Bulwer’s taxonomy. Despite his dream of the universality of gesture, even Bulwer allowed that hand signals could become “privy ciphers.” Performed within Syms’s video, such signals become ambiguous codes for identity and agency.