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Session 7: 'Gesture in Performance'

Professor Jane Garnett (Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at Wadham College, Oxford)
Holding the Sun by the Hand: Insight and the Rhythms of Memory

This presentation puts in conversation the work of two Italian artists - Maria Lai and Virgilio Sieni - who have reflected on how art can build community (indeed transform the very concept of community) through engaged gestures of connectivity. They both think about cultural depth - the archaeology of gesture creating spaces in past and present forms - and about how performance can simultaneously suspend and transmute the rhythms of the everyday, thereby opening up new possibilities of revitalisation and the exercise of agency. In rethinking art they reemphasise the significance of history.

Dr Rachel Coombes (Graham Robertson Research Fellow in the History of Art, University of Cambridge) “Like a Prayer”: Politics and the Pathologizing of Gesture at La Salpetrière

The fin-de-siècle “spectacles” held by Jean-Martin Charcot at La Salpêtrière (a place described by Didi-Huberman as “a kind of feminine inferno, a citta dolorosa”) have received a good deal of critical attention, particularly in relation to the performative theatricality of “hysterical” conditions. Less well studied is Charcot’s interest in pathological readings of gestural extremes within religious works of art. This interest formed part of the neurologist’s wider ambitions. A staunch defendant of Third Republican laïcité, he used his medical influence to further a positivist agenda that sought to minimize the influence of the Catholic Church in public life. Painted depictions of Biblical figures overcome by religious ecstasy or deep in fervent prayer were, for Charcot and his pupil Paul Richer, simply constructive indicators of psychological afflictions. They were therefore useful assets for the “re-conjuring” of such afflictions for the photographic lens, or for a contemporary live audience. The pair even published their findings: Les Démoniaques dans l'art (1887) and Les Difformes et les malades dans l'art (1889). By comparing several artworks highlighted in these texts with specific hypnosis-induced performances
at the Salpetrière, this paper not only clarifies the importance of the “gestural” within religious and scientific discourses of the fin-de-siècle, but also stresses the hermeneutic fragility of gestural forms across time.

Dr Ed McKeon (Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Birmingham City University; Director of Third Ear Music) Throwing and Catching

“Gesture is the imitation of words”, according to Jowett’s translation of Plato’s D
ialogues. More broadly, it is the embodied expression or action of an utterance. We are already in the realm of the performative, but one that is intimately doubled. To project one’s voice, to throw out a statement, also demands an Other to catch its meaning. The fully expressive dimension of this is elaborated in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s counterpart to the performative – the periperformative. To catch is not simply to receive but to complete an action, to make it consequential. This echoes a crucial lesson from Hannah Arendt in her articulation of action (another synonym for “gesture”) as combining two dimensions, a single movement in two parts that have become hopelessly divided under rubrics of production and reception. With this short presentation, I hope to consider the significance of reunifying them.

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