Ashleigh Young forces herself to look at Ronnie Van Hout's Hand sculpture.
I'm going to look at the Hand in Wellington's Civic Square for the first time. My visit feels dutiful. There has been a lot of talk about the Hand, much of it strangely sexual in nature, some of it dismissive, even disgusted. I have to go and see the Hand in the flesh so that I, too, can have an opinion.
I park my bike near the defunct library. The sun is out, the breeze is fussing. Surrounded by empty buildings, Civic Square has felt like a dead space for months. But as I enter the square and see the Hand [official name Quasi], immediately I can see that it will change everything forever. Its presence is electrifying. The Hand braces itself on the art gallery roof, like a weather vane. Perhaps in a former life it behaved as one, a finger pointing in the wind's direction. Now it is unmoved by all weathers.
People stare at it openly, smiling. Some millennials arrive and start laughing and reeling about. The Hand remakes everything as its stage – the onlookers, the sky, the buildings, time itself. A few people are hurrying along and not looking at the Hand. The effort of ignoring the Hand radiates from them; their internal battle – "Do not look at it" – echoes in their footsteps. I hear a man say defiantly, "Well, I love it." Someone else says, "Yeah, not a fan," as if such disapproval could ever surprise the Hand, as if the Hand could ever be cheered by the validation of others anyway. A man ambles through the square with a ghetto blaster under one arm. His tracksuit has "Google Me" written all over it. He is playing a grim karaoke recording of John Lennon's Jealous Guy. Normally karaoke man would be the centre of attention. Today he is a distant star. The Hand possesses all gravity now.
I sit on a bench to look up at it, feeling intoxicated. At each moment the Hand surrenders to being looked at. Its expression is that of someone who knows we are looking but also knows we will look away, that its abject existence is too uncomfortable to contemplate for more than a short time. It knows that even the weather eventually turns away.
I recall watching a video of the Hand's maker, Ronnie Van Hout, installing his sculpture Comin' Down on the roof of 209 Tuam St, Christchurch in 2013. The sculpture is of a very tall man, also with the likeness of Van Hout, wearing a suit and Converse sneakers. The man points his impossibly long arm at the sky, or maybe the arm points itself of its own volition. Van Hout adds the finishing touches to the figure and clambers, grinning, back inside a window, and suddenly the rain comes heaping down, and in that moment the pointing figure seems to own the rain and the sky itself.
As I look at the Hand, trying to form an original and tweetable opinion, I realise that my opinion is simply that I love the Hand. But love is such an animal response. I need something more. Part of the problem is that it's hard to say what the Hand means, beyond how wretched it feels to be an outsider, like Quasimodo in his bell tower. I sit there trying to figure it out.
Is the Hand saying something about the exhausting process of creating, of producing? The knowledge that no matter how hard one works, they won't be able to escape who they are, or how they're seen? Is it something about how simultaneously we lean towards and recoil from the grotesque?
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I like what Van Hout said in a recent interview with Megan Dunn – that the Hand "never gets to go inside to hang with the real art. He's like a working-class schmuck at a private-school event, who feels terribly out of place." You could say that up on the roof he's at that same private-school event, still jostled by opinions and stares, still denounced as "not art".
But when I look around again – people smiling and laughing and recoiling – I see that the Hand has made a sanctuary of itself, like a dancing man at a party who at first looks to be embarrassing himself but then suddenly becomes pretty good. From moment to moment, the Hand offers itself up. Here is something for us to love or despise. A reason to gather, with our pitchforks or bouquets or secret proclivities. The Hand gifts us its freakishness to make of what we will.
I feel very happy in the presence of the Hand. In the sky behind it, a plane leaves white trails. I have a plane to catch soon too. The sun flickers. Under the Hand, anything feels possible.
Next week: Steve Braunias