Hands and Symmetry

Last weekend I took a stroll through the Lower East Side and happened into McKenzie Fine Art, where the current exhibit is “Homeostasis” by Judith Braun. From the sidewalk I could see only that the work was quite detailed, and this drew me in.

One side of the room was hung with many small drawings, while on the opposite side, the wall itself was painted in a large symmetrical design. The gallerist was in in mid-conversation with another visitor, “Most people don’t understand what it is….they think it’s computer generated, but it’s all hand-drawn in graphite”.

When I stepped in closer to examine the framed drawings I started to appreciate the near-perfection of their elegant symmetries. The same thing could be done with 100% accuracy by Photoshop, but this was all created by a human hand. I imagined attempting to draw one of these sweeping curves---so far so good. Then I tried to imagine the fine motor control I’d need in order to mirror that.


This virtuosity in drawing reminded me how difficult it can be to reproduce a dance phrase to the other side, especially if it’s not made of the ballet steps I’ve worked on for decades. So I got interested and looked Braun up online.

Symmetry, it turns out, is a recurring theme in her work. The wall installation I saw consisted of many, many fingerprints in perfect bilateral symmetry.

Photo by Cesar Delgado Wixan

Symmetry is also the basis of an arm improv exercise I learned from Crystal Pite-- one I’ve since adapted for use in my own classes. As Crystal pointed out, the two sides of our body can move in a more symmetrical unison than a group of dancers could ever hope to achieve with any amount of rehearsal. When I move like this it doesn’t matter how fast I go; I can easily maintain symmetry in my arms. What’s more, my brain doesn’t know what’s going to happen, but somehow my arms have agreed on a plan.

The next stage of the exercise is to move in asymmetry, which is surprisingly hard, especially if I try to vary the energetic qualities of the two sides.

Braun seems to agree, saying of her attempts to draw simultaneously with sticks of charcoal in both hands “I realized that my hands, our hands, just naturally move simultaneously, the same way. It’s harder to do different things with your hands at the same time, the way musicians do. So I thought: “Wow I can do this, but maybe it would work better with just my dirty hands,” and I made a fingerprint on the wall. Wow, I noticed that the fingerprints were really interesting marks, very three-dimensional looking. They weren’t just flat smudges. And there was so much control and variation possible, just with pressure and gesture, like any other drawing tool.”

Then I thought of this video I’d watched the previous week, of the artist Heather Hansen.

While Judith Braun apparently prefers privacy and solitude for her fingerpainting, Hansen makes her art live in performance. Her large-scale charcoal works, created by symmetrical movements of her full body, resemble for me the sun salutations that begin my daily yoga practice. They also resemble some of the floor exercises I teach in the beginning of my contemporary class.

Photo by Kokyat