Between Expression and Gesture
By choosing the title "Between Expression and Gesture" for
this book and for her Vaduz exhibition, Nesa Gschwend inaugurates a space of which these two concepts are, as it were, the antipodes, even as they constitute the two sides of that
space, and are inseparably, interdependently connected. The remarks below are an attempt to investigate this space, and to examine the points of contact in her oeuvre between
expression and gesture.
Nesa Gschwend’s entire corpus is built upon action. Her artistic career began with theatre and performance; but although her work as a visual artist also has its roots in these
early preoccupations, the boundaries and transitions in her art are open and fluid. The performances give rise to objects and installations, while drawings and objects, for their
part, may be included in a performance. These are images or representations of an epistemological inquiry into a boundary the quest for which has been a constant in the history of
ideas: the line that separates the human subject from the world that subject experiences as "external". Her art focuses on the human being as a creature seeking to understand
itself and its environment in everything it does: by means of its agency, its intimacy, its cognition and its apprehension.
Nesa Gschwend’s work is shot through with the palpable, the tangible; with touching, with physical encounters and confrontations with objects and substances, with transformations
and with processes involving penetration, appropriation and internalization. A discussion of her performance piece “Red Thread” will serve as a point of departure for the
consideration of various aspects of Nesa Gschwend’s work, as well as of the concepts she has made her own.
A cloth is spread out on the floor; on the wall behind it are two video projections, recognizable as the artist’s face. A sort of container has been created out of ridge-like
folds in the cloth. The artist sits on a stool, stringing the large red beads spread out before her on a red thread. She picks up one bead after another, pierces it with a large
needle, and carefully passes it along the thread and back to the floor. Occasionally she stands up and pushes the threaded beads together. Slowly there begins to form around her a
wavy red line, like a further boundary marking off another inner world, that much closer to the centre. The continuous repetition of the same sequence of movements gives the
situation the look of a tableau vivant. It is an image of calm, of thoughtful, concentrated work. We are reminded of the Moirai, the Greek goddesses of fate: for although Nesa
Gschwend does not spin the thread of life, she does fill it with colour, in the form of her outsized beads – which perhaps thus represent the events of a lifetime.
It is not until the last bead has been strung that additional movement enters the scene, when the ends of the thread are joined to create a long necklace. From a hidden pocket in
her dress the artist removes a tube of bright red lipstick and begins slowly making up her lips with it. At first she does so in a lady-like manner, which then deteriorates into a
childish operation, and in the end she has drawn herself a grotesque clown’s maw. After surreptitiously hiding something in her mouth she stands up and, in a series of expansive
gestures, coils the string of beads several times around her neck. Thus bedecked she stands for several minutes, as if surprised at her own appearance, and turns the hidden object
over in her mouth.
The audience realizes that the real-life event and the projections are intersecting. In the projections we are watching the artist move a small mirror around in her mouth –
although it is not immediately apparent that what she has in her mouth is a mirror. We see the artist’s face in full frontal view; the angle of her downward gaze is slightly
oblique, and she does not once look at either the camera or the spectators. Her lips are smeared with red; until the performance reaches this point it is not clear whether her
lipstick has been smudged, or inexpertly applied; or indeed whether the red substance might not be blood. It is an uncertainty that keeps viewers on their toes. They feel a
mixture of things, including something like the pain associated with injury and suffering, especially when her mouth is distorted as if she were weeping. After a short time the
viewers recognize her concentrated regard as that of a wo-man gazing at herself, following the transformations and distortions of her own face as precisely as we are doing. Such a
gaze through half-lidded eyes encloses its possessor in her own world, and suggests the presence of an unseen second mirror (or screen), which constitutes an inaccessible space of
reference. We remain on the outside, forced into the role of observer: indeed, we are very nearly intruders, following the proceedings without actually understanding them. As if
the hidden mirror were the repository of this secret, its invisibility and unattainability are every bit as painful as the movements of the artist's face we do see. Occasionally
it occurs to us that the artist may be able to see more in her reflections in the little mirror than is manifest to us.
After a while, suddenly agitated, the performer slices through the necklace, and the beads clatter to the floor. The hollow sound they emit as they carom wildly around her
identifies them as ping pong balls. Nesa Gschwend waits until the stray beads stop bouncing before beginning to collect them in her skirt, taking them first from the cloth, then
from beyond it. At this point she puts on a jacket that has been hanging until now on a string. Her skirt flounces around and in front of her, growing ever thicker and heavier.
Finally, and with mounting agitation, she retrieves the last bead and returns to her place, removes the jacket, sits down on her chair, and begins to rummage around in her heavy
dress-cum-body, until suddenly the beads cascade to the floor once again, pouring into their cloth container – almost like a birth. And then the whole process begins again.
The piece raises a number of issues worth discussing: the creation of a space, and the crossing of spatial boundaries as metamorphoses; the role of the body, and the mirror as an
interface between subject and world; gestures and facial expressions; the experience of presence; and the cycle as the basic principle of all life.
“Red Thread” is typical of Nesa Gschwend’s performance art: she often spreads out a piece of fabric to mark the boundaries of a space, to set it off from its surroundings and to
create an interior. This fabric, or rather, the interior of this imaginary space, is the scene of most of the action. It can happen, however, that a performance is extended into
the spectators’ space, or that a sort of interstitial area is established between the two spaces. The performer frequently puts on and takes off a jacket or coat to symbolize
crossing a boundary or entering and leaving the dramatic space. Thus she builds up a variety of concentric spatial layers and levels of proximity and distance, and draws her
spectators into the action in conformance with the degree of involvement each situation requires. If she leaves the inner field, we suddenly become part of the dramatic space: the
boundary that had permitted us to remain passive observers in the external space has now been cancelled without warning.
By entering and leaving the field in this way, the artist can make manifest her figure’s movement between interior and exterior within a given performance. In “moments of a
person”, her path into the interior of the field/space/fabric was at the same time an incursion into the internal worlds of her very person. In previous pieces, such as “Mirror”
(1986), on which the new performance is based, the action focused on leaving a space, a shell that had become too constraining – staged as “skinning”.
These processes tell of metamorphoses, transformations and the stations of life. When she was younger, Nesa Gschwend created art about breaking free, liberation; today it tends to
concern the search for the inside, for whatever is hidden or internalized. Not in the sense of a withdrawal, but a change of direction in the midst of the quest still ongoing
within that realm that might be called the artist’s central “research area”: a quest or inquiry into the “between-ness” of that unnameable interstitial space which binds self to
world, and cuts it off at the same time.
Nesa Gschwend’s artistic vocabulary is based on the physical conditions of human life, in which psychological and spiritual processes are expressed. So it comes as no surprise to
learn that the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, which stresses the pivotal role of bodily contingency and sensory perception in our experience of ourselves and the world, is
pivotal to her thinking. Of particular significance is the fact that we simultaneously possess and are our bodies: that it is impossible for us to be outside our bodies or to
ignore them completely, or to recognize anything without doing so as embodied beings.
This experience of embodiment is fundamental and elementary to the artist’s oeuvre, from her physio-centric performances to her ephemeral portrait drawings, which do not reflect
the outside world in the traditional sense of "mirror images", but instead seem to be based on a view from within to without.
The “Mirror” video (which is projected during the performance described above) chronicles the way an expression changes with each minute alteration in a face. The face seems to us
by turns mournful, stricken and tortured, a grotesquely distorted clown’s visage, or a wild grimace from a children’s game. And then, once again, we get the impression that we are
observing someone analysing her own face. At certain moments the face resembles a mask from some non-European culture, when the lips open to reveal, not teeth, but a shiny,
reflective surface; when the cheeks sink, and the head is elongated.
The soundtrack to these goings-on is a woman’s voice reading selected words from the chapter entitled “The World as Perceived” in Merleau-Ponty’s “Phenomenology of
Perception“1. By skimming through the text and picking out individual words and phrases, Nesa Gschwend has devised a lecture automatique analogous to the Surrealists’
écriture auto- matique. Multiply superimposed, the fragments of text not only lose their contextual coherence, they also become unintelligible.
In this constellation, both spoken language and non-verbal communication via facial expressions are ambivalent media. The mirror in the piece is similarly polysemous. Given that
it reflects what lies outside, the mirror could represent a form of internalization, an attempt literally to incorporate the external world by taking it into one’s mouth – the way
a small child does, exploring not only with hand and eye but also with mouth. Or it could provide a glimpse into the unknown, invisible interior world of the body, into the mouth,
into the head – perhaps also into the mind. In the former case, the external world is projected onto the inside, while in the latter case it is the internal world which is
projected onto the outside, and becomes a symbol of that very border crossing and exploration of the tangent between the self/body and the world discussed above.
The “Gestures” pieces also constitute an attempt at a sort of self-perception. A passage from Merleau-Ponty’s work may provide a clue: the philosopher contemplates the idea that
it is actually impossible for human beings to touch their own bodies the way they do an object. He offers the example of our hands, which register the material world but are
unable to touch each other with the same objectivity: touching and touched at one and the same time, they are compelled to experience a “double perception”.
Nesa Gschwend’s roots are in theatre, in which gestures play an essential part as a symbolic and non-verbal means of expression. In everyday communi-
cation too, however, gestures are a widespread medium. Little movements and attitudes bear the broadest range of messages and are by turns conscious and unconscious, individually
developed and culturally or traditionally conditioned. Gestures can coalesce into signs, into symbols capable of being taught and passed on like a secret code, used to identify
membership in a particular social group, religion or culture (as for example in various species of oriental theatre); sign language for the hearing impaired is likewise based on
precisely studied gestures. On the other hand, unconscious gestures are an element in the non-verbal language of the body, and arise in particular when speech attempts to repress
or mask a given emotion.
Our hands perform mini-choreographies, sketch out a space, create bodies or interstices; and it is just such ephemeral structures that the artist is searching for when she makes a
sculpture out of a petrified gesture. Her medium is liquid wax, formed over cloth gloves and allowed to cool in a given position. The gloves hang unimpeded in a space, like a
corps of ballerinas floating through the air, caught in a particular moment of internal motion. Taken together, however, they also perform a communal manoeuvre that transcends
individual gesture and describes the course of a conversation or the account of a meeting.
Just as her portraits trace the expression underpinning the gestural surface of her subjects, here too
Nesa Gschwend is on the lookout for whatever is not obvious, whatever is hidden. This is particularly clear in those drawings in which her hands sketch each other in turn. She
causes her hands to encounter each other on paper in a fashion that does not arise from a codified gesture or anatomical position, but is instead a function of the serial nature
of their creation. A new constellation is forged in the fusion of two individual positions.
She describes it thus: “The language of gesture is somewhat more conscious than that of facial expression, and more dependent on culture. These works are a personal encounter with
my two hands. I use my right hand to sketch my left, and vice versa. This produces an overlap that in turn becomes a touch, a gesture. The energy of each hand, whether delicate or
powerful, is thus quite literally visible on the paper as lightness or darkness. The gesture becomes a trace that extends throughout all the pieces, a kind of narrative for two
hands. [...] The tension between right and left is something that has long preoccupied me. Although I am left-handed, I was forced to use my right hand and thus virtually
compelled to ambivalence, to a refusal to opt for one side or the other. The result is that in my everyday life I am constantly switching hands. So this work has a biographical
angle, among other things. [...] I tend to draw with my left hand. The difference between the two sides is evident on comparison, but it is difficult to describe. It is not even
clear whether both hands belong to one person, or to two. It may be that the best way to grasp the gesture is by performing it oneself.”
In these drawings the artist frees herself from outer appearance: they resemble neither Albrecht Dürer’s precise study of praying hands nor M.C. Escher’s playful mutually
sketching hands, but instead penetrate through the anatomical surface into the life pulsating within, to the blood vessels and nerve tracts that conduct emotions to the members
and awaken them “to speech”.
Thus she also touches the world of expression, and the gesture as a conscious or half-conscious movement gives way to an unconscious expression of the kind we perceive in the
face, eyes or regard of a human being.
Facial expressions are less controlled than gestures, and betray much that is unconscious and involuntary. As infants we recognize that facial expressions are an index of the
other’s interior world, and we learn how to interpret them beyond what is superficially visible. The human face is not only legible as regards the feelings and mood of its
possessor, it is also a mirror offering observers a certain amount of information about themselves, about their own aura and effect. It permits observers to draw conclusions about
themselves from the regard of the other, an additional form of reflection. Thus the human countenance is the primary interface between inside and outside.
Nesa Gschwend’s work focuses centrally on faces. Her portraits, composed as large-scale tableaux, take the viewer on a journey through a variety of affective worlds; at the same
time they also offer biographical elements, as for instance in the artist’s choice of specific venues with personal resonance to create her drawings, such as her parents’ house in
the Rhine Valley in the canton of St. Gallen.
“It’s thrilling for me as well to see in retrospect what a place has done to me. This happens mainly unconsciously, since there are far too many layers involved. And of course the
place you grew up in is filled with your unconscious self. If I could describe it, I wouldn’t have to draw it. [...]
My heads are ambivalent. They remain fully part of the picture, while at the same time offering a pretty precise index of the energy released during the process of coming into
being. I cannot expose myself to the space and simultaneously bring my own ideas with me. These are mutually exclusive activities. In retrospect the portraits are legible as an
image, and as an archive, a place to store memory. For me, this memory takes place on a personal level. What I am looking for, however, is an emotional trace that everyone
recognizes and that is open-ended enough to combine with the viewer’s own stories and background. This necessitates knowing how to deal with one’s own experiences, with one’s own
personal, subjective perception. Such experiential similarity forges a link between people.”
While the “Mirror” video shows the superficial, physiological transformations undergone by the human face, the drawings take the viewer’s gaze through the skin, below the surface
of their subjects’ physiognomy. We are moved by these essential, ephemeral heads no doubt precisely because they lack the physiognomic specifics of the individual, and are thus
virtually immaterial phenomena, as if we were almost able to touch something of the soul that is on show here. Arisen out of the depths of our unconscious, they present themselves
to us as other and as reflection at one and the same time.
The performance piece entitled “Between Expression and Gesture”, which lends its name to both the exhibition and the book, should also be seen as closely related to these
drawings. Her face veiled beneath a black bonnet, Nesa Gschwend kneads together a dough of flour and water, applies it to her own face, and then, blind, shapes features out of it
with her hands: eye sockets, nose and mouth. A human countenance comes into being, once again not as a representation but rather as a fleeting expression that has taken shape and
materialized, an image of the self that can never actually be seen – that is what takes place here.
The key to performance art is the unconditional presence of the artist, who is experienced and physically sensed by the audience through the energy she exudes. As Erika
Fischer-Lichte concludes in her “Aesthetics of the Performative”3, performance is an intensive experience of presence for all concerned, including the spectators, even when they
are not themselves actively involved in the performance. An exchange occurs, through which the artist’s physical presence is sensed; her actions, noises and odours are
multiply perceived and leave a lasting impression. Thus the experience of a performance is always different from looking at a work of art: the audience is involved whether it
likes it or not, via empathy or disgust as the case may be. The distance possible when contemplating a work of visual art can scarcely be maintained here. Nor does this experience
only set in once the artist leaves the territory she has staked out and enters the “spectators’ space”: it begins with the performance itself.
Thus it is clear that the boundary between performance and object in Nesa Gschwend’s visual art is frequently permeable. Whether as regards the objects that arise as relics
directly out of a performance or those in which the process of becoming remains visible and graspable, the usual distance seems to have been partially erased. Her work retains a
hint of the presence we experience in her performances. In reference to Gernot Böhme’s propositions regarding the atmosphere, Fischer-Lichte speaks of the “ecstasy of things as
the means whereby they appear particularly present to the perceiving subject”, and concludes that objects can also emanate a form of presence, which the subject grasps bodily
beyond purely visual perception.4 Nesa Gschwend’s exhibitions always have something of this performative atmosphere about them.
Especially in her portraits, and intensively in her video projections, in which the artist fluently arrays and overlaps hundreds of these drawings, we encounter a touching form of
presence. As resistant as it is to visual perception, its presence is equally vigorous. The ostensible pulsation and respiration of what are often scarcely perceptible facial
features make us forget that these are pictures: they become apparitions, visions rather than visages.
Nesa Gschwend’s thought is based on an image of infinitely rotating cycles. It is an attitude that is manifest not only in the repeated sequences in her performance art or her
tireless return to the same topic in her drawings, but also frequently in the fact that she continually revisits older work, subjects individual themes to new treatments.
In addition to “Red Thread”, the motif of the cycle is particularly obvious in the videos based on her performance piece “Rotations”. (See the interview with Gabrielle Obrist in
this volume.) She focuses her camera on her hands and fingers as they cut an orange in two and then – once the fruit’s flesh has been consumed – reassemble the two halves. Her
focus and constant repetition transpose a simple action to a metaphysical plane, where it is condensed into a symbol for transformation, for the natural vegetative processes of
becoming and decaying. And at the same time it stands as well for an ancient human rite: opening and destroying an object while also attempting to make it whole again, to heal it.
It is a metaphor for a subject’s encounter with the outside world, for its attempt at understanding, appropriating and internalizing what surrounds it, of which it is itself a
part, and yet which continues to exist outside it, as its other, as a stranger.
Nesa Gschwend’s creative work is thus rooted in the recognition of these life-affirming cycles, as well as in the never-ending search for permeable borders, for a constant
oscillation between internal and external space, whether physical or psychological, spatial or corporeal. A journey into the between.
Material quoted here by Nesa Gschwend was recorded in conversation with the author in November 2007 and February 2008.
1Maurice Merlot-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith, Routledge 2002, pp. 235 ff.
2pp. 118 ff.
3Erika Fischer-Lichte, Ästhetik des Performativen, Frankfurt/Main 2004, pp. 160 ff.
4pp. 202 ff.