Sunday, April 5, 2020

Frontliners: Walter Oltmann

Day Ten of South Africa's The Lockdown Collection presents a stunning wire sculptural work by Walter Oltmann, "Frontliners." Two gloved hands, one a right hand, the other a left hand, reach out into a field that is filled with about twenty circular shapes denoting the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, the cause of Covid-19 disease. The space immediately around each hand is more or less clear of the virus, perhaps evoking the work of frontline medical workers in repelling the pathogen or at least holding it at bay, at great risk to themselves.

The artist writes, “Frontliners pays tribute to the many people working in the frontlines in combating the coronavirus. I salute them for their selfless dedication and for putting their lives at risk in caring for the infected. As in previous wireworks, I have used a fine wire lace that can be read as a permeable skin-an insecure barrier between the carer’s gloves and the surrounding virus.” 

Mark Auslander: Oltmann's "Frontliners" highlights the ambiguous quality of human hands at the present moment of global crisis. Hands are the primary extensions through which we know and take hold of the world; they are our primary instrument of care, compassion, and skill. Yet, hands are also, in these perilous times, the principal vectors of danger. We are constantly enjoined to wash our hands and avoid the lifelong habits of touching our face with our hands, touching surfaces, or shaking hands, for fear of infecting ourselves or others with the virus. 

Walter Oltmann, Frontliners, 2020
In previous work (see Dundas & Charlton 2014), Oltmann has used fine wire body suits of armor to parody, gently, the colonial fantasy of impermeable barriers between colonizing and subaltern personas and environs: colonial frontiers are for him sites where difference is manifestly asserted but where difference in fact melts away, through histories of mutual transformation and exchange. In Frontliners, though, the permeability of boundaries is frighteningly non-metaphorical; we all know that gloves and other Personal Protective Equipment, even when they are in fact available, only offer partial protection against an insidious viral enemy, which seems remarkably well adapted to overcoming our technological and immunological defenses. Appropriately, the clear field around each hand, the zone of protection ostensibly offered by the glove, seems under assault, as the encroaching viruses  surround  the ostensible "clean" zone and inch ever closer to the hands themselves. (I am not sure, but it may even be that on the top of each hand, near the wrists, we glimpse the shadow of the infecting virus.)

The artist has expanded each virus by thousands of times the size of its actual microscopic scale. This seems to endow the pathogen with dreaded qualities associated  with previous plagues: the blisters of smallpox, the swelling postules of the Black Death, or the Karposi's Sarcoma lesions of HIV-AIDS. This particular affliction may be "novel," but we have, in significant respects, been down this road before. 

This haunting work puts me in mind of Robert Hertz's classic 1907 essay, Death and the Right Hand, one of the foundational studies in structural anthropology. Hertz notes a near-universal contrast in human cultures, associating the left hand with death and danger (the Latin "sinistra," or left handedness, is the source of our term, "sinister.") The right hand, in turn, has general associations with the triumph of goodness over evil and of light over darkness, and in many cultural orders, maleness over femaleness.  Hertz's full analysis, however,  is complex and nuanced, and demonstrates that rightness and leftness interpenetrate one another across the spectrum of ritual action and everyday life. Any claim to a privileged, unitary position, including an exclusively male or female identity, is always on the verge of dissolution. Symmetry implies mutual entanglement as much as the illusion of absolute differentiation. (Hertz's insights were famously developed in Ursula Le Guin's speculative novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, which destabilizes taken for granted gender dualities, set on a planet of protean hemaphrodites, who alternately take on "male' or "female" bodily and emotional qualities.) 

In this light, I sense in Oltman's depiction of the paired right and left hands a profound recognition that we are all in this struggle together, across putative lines of gender, race, class or national identity, even at a time when ethnonationalism seems dangerously on the rise everywhere. The pairing of symmetrically opposite yet identical hands is a potent signifier of our ultimate unity, now most manifest in our shared struggle against the virus, even as we face the constant temptation to retreat into the narrow "gloved," seemingly protected confines of our homes and prior chauvinisms.

Appropriately, the three dimensional nature of Oltmann's gloves invites us to ponder putting our hands inside of them, taking on the bodily subject position of the imperiled caregiver. We are thus all as viewers of the work implicated in the great drama unfolding around us, and can potentially interpolate ourselves into the heroic yet fragile outstretched hands of the medical worker. For this is the power of the universal symbol of the outstretched hand, normally an instrument of friendship, mastery, care and love; at this uncertain moment in human history, there is no fully safe "home front," as we all find ourselves on the "front lines."


Neil Dundas and Julia Charlton, editors. 2014. Walter Oltmann: In the Weave. Johannesburg: Standard Bank Gallery, 2014

Hertz, Robert, 1960 (1907). Death and the Right Hand (trans. Rodney and Claudia Needham.) London; Cohen and West 

Le Guin, Ursula. 1969. The Left Hand of Darkness.  New York: Walker and Company, 

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