Visitors to St Arnuad have been struck by the massive photograph of a single hand pointing into the sky. Was there a religious festival in town, Nathan Gray was asked?
Depicted so very much larger than life is the hand of a St Arnaud local, transformed into a symbol, an indication, an instruction, an act – a gesture.
Nathan Gray’s The Gesture Project is the second of the St Arnaud Street Museum residencies in which an artist spends months in the small town to develop a work that has emerged from that community experience. Nathan’s approach has been to focus on the people of St Arnaud and the social forms that they distribute across their town every day – in particular, on the forms made by the hands as we speak, as we express our enjoyment, or more formally, as we indicate the rules of the game: “Pointing up, down, left, right, indicating what they find interesting.”
In one work, Nathan focused his camera on the moving shapes made by the hands when we’re not focusing on our hands at all. “I sneakily filmed their hands while they were talking to me – the actions people make when they don’t think they’re being noticed.” The work is subtle, and yet so very expressive. The hands communicate a great deal more than we might imagine.
Another work presents over a hundred locals through their clapping hands. The piece is edited at a cracking pace, offering a sharp sense of the repeated joy of hands making that happy sound. And yet, even though all we see are those hands, and even though we see each pair of hands only fleetingly, for locals the recognition is immediate: the brain works very fast to connect the visual cue to the individual, and so those passing on the street find that it is indeed possible to identify people through their gestures alone. “It’s St Arnaud giving itself a round of applause”, Nathan laughs.
The most formal of the works, The Umpires’ Dance, documents the hand signals of a range of local sporting officials – hockey, netball, cricket – and then edits them choreographically. “This was a fun process for me,” Nathan reflects; “edited together, they seemed like a dance.” A performance by Capital Dance Studio on the opening day brought these gestures to bear back on a community setting, performing gestures reflected and rearranged.
The gesture as cultural artefact is what this second iteration of the St Arnaud Street Museum presents. In doing so, it makes a public gesture on both the nature of the museum and the nature of the street itself. Works pop up in shop windows more and more, but this is no pop-up phenomenon; the project takes its status as a museum seriously. A gallery presents a range of works, composing them for public viewing by taking away the conditions of their creation and offering instead a clean context for multiple interpretations. A museum curates and preserves cultural objects, offering them as indicators of a time and a place. The main street of a small town circulates a community in all of its daily patterns, distributing daily needs and facilitating human contact. The street is always curating a set of interactions through the frameworks it has created for its community.
A street museum reflects those practices back to the community as cultural objects, open to new interpretation. Reflection itself has been a strong element of both of the Street Museum works: with James Geurts’ Watertable, most strikingly in the way his cast objects were reflected in the golden water of a flood long past, and for both works, in the ways in which the proudly spotless windowglass of each shopfront is kept meticulously clean, mirroring back the movements and the facial expressions of each passer-by. Each one of these gestures becomes a part of the project, populating the Street Museum with an ever-changing collection of movable artefacts. With each hand-shake and pointer in the right direction, each resident and visitor becomes part of a work which is reflected in shop windows as readily as it recedes back into the everydayness of life. A work that is both sited as a Street Museum, and distributed across gestures formal and informal, Nathan Gray’s project creates a set of cultural objects that were always already there.
This second iteration of the St Arnaud Street Museum, The Gesture Project, received funding via competitive application from the Australian Government Regional Arts Fund, which is administered in Victoria by Regional Arts Victoria. Esther Anatolitis is Director of Regional Arts Victoria. Funding decisions for the Regional Arts Fund are made by an independent panel of peers in which Esther does not participate.
All quotes from Nathan Gray’s artist talk at the launch event on Sunday 31 May 2015.
The St Arnaud Street Museum is curated by Maudie Palmer AO. It is central to the St Arnaud Civic Precinct Plan commissioned by the Northern Grampians Shire Council and developed by MvS Architects with SGS Economics & Planning and Maudie Palmer. My thoughts on the first Street Museum project, Watertable by James Geurts, are here.