Hand Gestures (Il Gesto Delle Mani) – Film Review by David Turpin
Directed by Francesco Clerici
Francesco Clerici’s debut feature, Hand Gestures, observes – from start to finish – the making of one of Italian artist Velasco Vitali’s celebrated bronze dog sculptures, by the artisans of Milan’s historic Fonderia Artistica Battaglia (founded in 1913). The ‘lost-wax’ techniques used at the foundry have remained unchanged since its foundation and, moreover, are essentially holdovers from the Bronze Age. While Vitali’s sculpture – with its rough-hewn angularity – is immediately recognisable as a contemporary art object, the process of its creation is identical to that of the Greek Riace bronzes in 460-450BC.
A brief history of lost-wax casting, and of the foundry, is provided by way of introduction, but the bulk of the film is given over to a record of the entire production process of this single artwork. Occasional cutaways to monochrome archival footage of an earlier sculpture’s production are used to emphasise the consistency of the process across history, but even without these the film’s concern with tactile permanence would be evident. Clerici presents his record without voiceover description or background music – the only sounds, besides those of the casting process, are the occasional conversation of the artisans and the murmur of a small portable radio. Mirroring the way in which the lost-wax casting technique is passed on through apprenticeships rather than at art schools, the film is demonstrative instead of pedagogical.
The emphasis on observation rather than didacticism is challenging, at first, and ultimately rewarding, as Hand Gestures becomes a record of patience and presence – an instance of ancient values persisting into a century that is generally characterised by notions of speed and disembodiment. Clerici’s apparent thesis – that ‘sculpture’ is not simply the object produced, but the sum and record of the gestures that produce it – is supported by the film’s extraordinary tactility. Throughout, while the individual personalities of the artisans emerge only in the most abstract sense, the nuances of their gestures are captured with minute attention. There is an extraordinary physical grace to the shaping of the object, as much as to the form of the object itself, with Clerici presenting the process of sculpting as a kind of kinetic artwork itself.
One might interpret the film’s matter-of-fact presentation of the fabrication – by others – of Vitali’s sculpture as a kind of ‘demystification’ of contemporary art, provided one subscribes to the notion that contemporary art is somehow mystifying. However, the real fascination of the film – and the reason its 70 minutes fairly fly by – is the way in which it removes the mystery of how an individual object has been produced, in order to reveal something more mysterious again: the luminous persistence of the human gesture, and the will to fabricate, across millennia.
DIRECTOR Q&A – Francesco Clerici to the IFI on November 24th for a Q&A hosted by artist Rachel Joynt following the 18.30 screening.