the dialogue of hands: east meets west

by Karen N. Gerig
translated by Daniel Young

Nikolai Winter is fond of hands, hands of flesh and blood or meter-high bronze hands at the Musei Capitolini in Rome. This fascination started a few years ago on a trip to the Far East where he discovered a small 11th Century Tibetan wooden hand, a representation of a Buddhist hand gesture, with fingers that were partially broken off. Years later he repeatedly duplicated this image, creating an army of hands that mirrored the Chinese terracotta warriors. Just as a large mass of soldiers may have an ominous effect on people, the image of these individual hands can also remove people’s fears. These hands are so minimal that they function in a group as well as alone. The gesture that Winter has chosen, “Abhaya Mudra” - that of a raised hand with a slightly bent middle finger – translates in Buddhism as ‘Do not be afraid’.

Before creating an army of hands, Winter created individual ones. He precisely carved them out of styrofoam, varnished the surface and welded parts of the fingers out of wire mesh. During this process he was more interested in the working process and the technical implementation of an idea rather than that of the meaning. The speed and power with which the carvings were made stand in contrast to the precision of the varnishing, a step that required a slowness which was needed to produce the perfect, scratch free surface. Thus the meaning of the gesture, its message and aura fuse together.

Winter became more and more fascinated with using the hand as a means of communication. Through his interest in Asian culture he began to further develop these expressions. Whereas the “Abhaya Mudra”, represented by the artist in mystic purple, being an expression of fearlessness, the touching of the thumb and middle finger, so called “Shunya Mudra”, symbolizes longevity. For the artist it seemed only logical to paint this hand in blood red, a color that signifies the power of life.

At his exhibition in St. Moritz in summer 2011, Winter contrasted the spiritual gestures of the Far East with two western gestures. One of such is the gaudy pink victory sign represented as an outstretched V using the index and middle fingers. Not only does this symbolize victory, but also the desire to be victorious. The second gesture is the extended middle finger; a crude but internationally recognized symbol. For this he chose the shape of an elegant woman's hand, finished in subtle anthracite.

The works shown in St. Moritz are the résumé of a four-year period of creativity. West meets East, strength through peace, wealth and power through humility. Not only do the Buddhist inspired hands shine because of their polished surfaces, but also because of their innate spiritual purity. This stands in contrast to the western power gestures, which tend to wallow in a rich and conspicuous emptiness. Gestures which were never intended to be presented together, must now engage in a dialogue. As competing images they are compelled to escape their meaningful core, thus making the juxtaposition of their strengths more effective.

Shunya mudra gesture East meets West by artist Nikolai Winter
Victory gesture East meets West by artist Nikolai Winter
Doigt d'honneur middle finger gesture East meets West by artist Nikolai Winter
Abhaya mudra group at East meets West by artist Nikolai Winter