Nina Sellars is a visual artist, scholar, and curator of exhibitions and programs at the Harry Brookes Allen Museum of Anatomy and Pathology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Melbourne. Previously, she was artist in residence at SymbioticA, the Centre of Excellence in Biological Arts, 2016-2018, University of Western Australia, and research fellow at the Alternate Anatomies Lab (robotics and art research group), Curtin University, Perth, W.A., 2013-2015. Recent exhibitions of her artwork include: Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia—New Romance: Art and the Posthuman, 2016; Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts—HyperPrometheus: The Legacy of Frankenstein, 2018; Anna Leonowens Gallery, Halifax, Canada—IOTA Bio Art Series, 2019; Riga Stradins University Anatomy Museum, Riga, Latvia—Anatomy & Beyond, 2021; Recent authored publications—‘Fat Matters: Fluid Interventions in Anatomy’, inFluid Matter(s): Flow and Transformation in the History of the Body, ANU Press, 2020, and ‘Robert Hooke’s Micrographia: a historical guide to navigating contemporary images’, in Routledge Handbook of Art, Science, and Technology Studies, 2021.
Text that accompanies exhibition installation
In the Renaissance era the forearm was perceived to represent the site of human identity and intelligence. This understanding originated from earlier Galenic and Aristotelian writings on the function of the forearm flexor muscles, viewed as the actuators of the grasping hand. The eminent art historian Martin Kemp notes that ‘the mechanism of the hand was seen as perfectly designed for apprehension, that is to say “grasping,” and it is fitting that “apprehension” in Latin as in English came to assume the dual meaning of taking hold and becoming cognizant of new ideas.’1 We hear this view reflected in a directive made by the sixteenth-century anatomist Vesalius, in his instruction to students to not only observe the anatomical body with your own eyes, but also that ‘you yourselves should feel with your own hands, and trust them’ in the study of anatomy.2
Our hands not only relay sensory information to an inquisitive mind but also demonstrate our will instrumentally. Moreover, their gesticulations support the voicing of our thoughts visually. The Roman rhetorician Quintilian (c. 35CE – c. 100 CE) wrote that ‘while other parts of the body merely help the speaker, the hands, so to say, speak themselves.’3 Indeed, almost 2000 years after Quintilian wrote these words, contemporary fMRI studies show that the speech perception areas of the brain appear to process and integrate not only auditory cues, but also the visual cues in our perception of speech.4
The installation Apprehension embraces this history, but also connects to the contemporary more commonly implemented understanding of the word apprehension—to allude to the anxiety that the human population is currently experiencing worldwide, albeit to varying degrees, during the COVID-19 pandemic. At a time when touching another person has become problematic and our communications are most often conducted at a distance, we find ourselves increasingly seeking care and connection that by necessity is mediated through our computer screens.
Apprehension was made by taking a nineteenth-century wax model of an anatomized hand that is held within the collections of the University of Melbourne, Australia, and transposing it into a digital animated 3D object. The original hand, which was produced in 1890 by the renowned Parisian atelier Maison Tramond, now appears to move—as if it were alive. The physiological movements of this digital twin form a choreography that comprises three of the gestures outlined by Quintilian in his renowned textbook for orators, Insititutio Oratoria (95 CE).5 The display begins with a declamation, a gesture that indicates wait a moment or pay attention—the index finger of the raised hand extends to point upwards, with the three remaining fingers being flexed into the palm; this is followed by an exordium, a gesture that indicates I am about to speak— ‘placing the middle finger against the thumb, and extending the remaining three… the hand being moved forward with an easy motion a little distance both to the right and the left’; and finally Wonder, expressed as follows— ‘the right hand turns slightly upwards and the fingers are brought in to the palm, one after the other, beginning with the little finger; the hand is then reopened and turned round by a reversal of this motion.’6