By Hands. On motifs and meanings

As the title By Hands implies, Yau Bee Ling’s third solo exhibition of art works from 2015 and 2016 in Wei Ling Gallery is dealing with hands – both as a motif and as a theme. Thereby, the artist follows a well established iconographic tradition in art history which shows a large number of hand studies, paintings or sculptures over the centuries. By studying Bee Ling’s works we get reminded of all these numerous artistic approaches to this very old image and topic “hand”. The classical Renaissance hand studies by Leonardo da Vinci (1474) for example, or Albrecht Dürer’s praying hands in his Study of the Hands of an Apostle (about 1508) could have been an inspiration to Bee Ling’s contemporary approach to hands in art. But her ink, graphite, charcoal, acrylic, pastel or oil colour drawn and painted hands go beyond the traditional hand studies.

Analysing the images from a purely formal point of view, the first thing we realise, while contemplating on the exhibition significantly entitled By Hands, is the fact that we need to take a closer look to discover the hand motif in most of the works. First and foremost the mixed media pieces are a eulogy to a deeply aesthetical approach to art. The cowering, racking, grabbing, stretching, single fingers moving hands seem at first sight like a fuddle of lines and shapes. Although they act somehow disorganised, following no rules initially, it becomes obvious that they are rather set in an elaborately studied composition, being part of a greater unity of colours, shapes, medias, materials and techniques. Desiring Seeds – Drawing I, as well as Intimate Study I and II, for example, are testimonies of this aesthetical reunion of image elements seemingly set in a random interaction. The greyish, organically and mostly diagonally intertwined lines, at a second glance to be identified as hands, form a framework for the strikingly red dots spread all over the picture in varying conglomerations.

Hands On turns the function of the hand as an organical frame for geometrical forms into the opposite: here the predominant and detailed elaborated hand studies work as the former dots in e.g. Desiring Seeds – Drawing I, connected by straight and sharp vertically and horizontally set lines. Instead of red dots, Bee Ling focuses in Click on light and dark bluish squares, well dispersed all over the confused, intertwined hand studies beneath them, quieting them down by giving them a certain structure, a linear guidance. The squares are inevitably revealing parallels to Giacomo Balla’s futuristic painting Girl Running on the Balcony from 1912. The artist was heavily influenced by the North Italian Divisionism and its method of gaining optical effects by separating colours to create texture and depth in an image. But the similarities to this Italian artist’s stylistic approach are not only to be found in the bluish, rectangular brush strokes in different shades. In 1909, after a neo-impressionistic phase, Balla turned towards futuristic experiments with speed and movement. It is rather the latter phenomenon that seems to play an important role in Bee Ling’s hand series. While Balla uses the tiny blue brush stroke squares to focus on the fragmented image of the girl’s permanent motion through time and space, Bee Ling captures in her hand drawings – beneath the blue square mosaic –several phases of constant movement on one surface: a method first introduced in the late 19th century by Étienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge in their chronophotographs which was then adopted by the Futurists.

Most of Bee Ling’s pieces like Hands On, especially Click, Reach Out I & II and Flames, deal with this artistically held down motion cycle of hands. Although she uses very differing, even contrasting colours for her works, ranging from red, yellow, to green and blue, they all have another stylistic feature (besides the hands in motion studies) in common: each painting is composed out of a group of three seemingly single studies brought together. In combination with the usage of recurrent dots, rectangulars and several motion sequences these “series in a series” cause a sensation of repetition and rhythm, which in the end remind of a textile surface: the rapport of almost the same recurring motifs – without a clearly discernible centre nor a classical composition – resembles the rich, colourful and opulent fabrics as for example made by John Galliano or Kenzo.

Bee Ling’s interest in colours and the organisation of shapes and lines in a picture setting is predominant; the hands seem from a formal point of view (just) a good working part in this greater system. This almost decorative, ornamental aspect with its focus on colour, rhythm, and the aesthetic moment in general reveals a strong connection to handicraft.
But it is way more than the craft that determines her art. Our whole vocabulary, as for instance handicraft, contains the word “hand” in differing manifestations – not only in an objective but also in a spiritual meaning. It is this spirituality, derived mainly from the interplay of the painted hands and the special handling of the material, the medium and the surface that builds the true core of Bee Ling’s art. As Martin Heidegger states in 1954, “hand” and “head” are always linked together in a working process and cannot be separated. Bee Ling’s series too must not only be analysed in relation to the hand as a motif, but also in its content.

No matter if the hands Bee Ling is displaying are working hands, seen in Farming Hands or Sow and Reap, praying or holding as well as reaching out hands, like in Abide I and II, Reach Out I and II, Hold on to it I and II they are always a symbol for the nourishment of the spiritual well-being. The various hands taken from magazines, digital prints or the ones that are simply images of her own and her children’s hands symbolise the “doing” of the limbs or the whole body in action, in contrast to the so-called “intellect overdose”. Bee Ling deplores the diminishing of the importance of physical activity in connection to the art-making process and life in general. Therefore her aim is to refer to the connection between the physical and the spiritual aspect of existence. As she states, the limbs have a stimulating effect on the inner thinking forces, which further leads to the creation of abstract thought. Thus, there is no intellectual action possible without stressing the physique.

Whether she used them in her teaching activities, giving her son Zachary art and craft lessons, or worked on her own art as a therapeutic intervention after the tragical loss of her younger sister, Bee Ling’s “hands” imply the healing of the soul and of relationships through the mobilisation of the body. This omnipresent duality of things can not only be found in the hands Bee Ling paints. The red dots in many of her works can be read as seeds standing for both new life and the termination of things and ideas. On the other hand, the bluish squares and the sharp lines in works like Click or Hands On seem like gadgets and buttons, which are emotionless. Another square object in Devotion I and II addresses the opposite: here the sharp-edged rectangular frames are “devotional boxes”, containing happy memories of the long gone childhood Bee Ling spent with her sister, as well as the deepest sorrow of losing her years later.

With regard to the relationships mentioned in Bee Ling’s art, it is especially the hand which mediates and emphasises (in connection with the language) one person’s statement by means of gesture. Hands are therefore, other than the face or eyes, being recognized as an essential means of expression of human spirituality and even personality. But today’s information technology and mass media are preventing direct communication; hands as attributes for someone’s individuality and uniqueness are diminishing. The same process that occurs when beloved ones pass away; what remains is the memory of their personality, their former lives, and moreover – infinite love.

Bee Ling is bringing to her audience a deep understanding for the meaning of life in its entire spectrum of unifying contradictions. Through her both stylistically and content-wise rich hand paintings the apparent opposites of body and soul, private and public, the starting and the ending of things, relationships and lives seem to diminish. The pictured hands are actually individuals preserved through art as the most sustainable way of freezing life. But Bee Ling goes even beyond bypassing the termination of things in general: her manual art, which is strongly oriented towards craftsmanship, stands for the recreation of the missing physique, the materialisation of lost moments and long gone personalities. She is providing them not only with a new but foremost never ending élan vital through touchable, objective art.

Like in Michelangelo’s presentation of the genesis in the Sistine Chapel – the almighty reaching out for Adam’s hand to give him life – Bee Ling is a “creator” too: a mother, giving birth and creating new biological life, a sister and human being, saving (memories of) her beloved ones for eternity, an artist producing material and intellectual art, loading her objects with the idea of endless life. God really seems to be present everywhere.

Dr. Hanni Geiger

Dr. Hanni Geiger is an art historian and researcher specialized in modern and contemporary art (20–21st century) with a research focus on the interdependencies between art, design and migration (PhD thesis: “Form follows culture. Entgrenzungen im Konzept-Design Hussein Chalayans”; engl. Form follows culture. Boundary Expandations in the Concept-Design of Hussein Chalayan) / LMU Munich, grade: summa cum laude). Among others worked at the Design Academy amd/Hochschule Fresenius in Munich (professor), the University of Munich (Institute of Art History) (lecturer and researcher), the Goethe-Institute Croatia and the Center for Advanced Studies in Munich (research project „Exile, Migration and Transfer”). She studied art history, intercultural communication, art education and fashion design in Munich and Zagreb.

[1] Fajarnés Cardona, Enrique: No title nor year (translated from Spanish). Quoted after: [Anonymous]: Untitled (2013), in: Ciudades Patrimonio de la Humanidad, [Retrieved: 29.01.2016].

[2] Rushdie, Salman: Heimatländer der Phantasie: Essays und Kritiken 1981-1991 (engl. original version: Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981‒1991, London 1992), p. 457.

[3] Hall, Stuart: Cultural Identity and Diaspora, in: Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, edited by Jonathan Rutherford, London 1990, p. 226.

[4]Special optical parallels can be found by comparing Flames and Kenzo’s autumn/winter collection 2005. See Black, Sandy (ed.): Fashioning Fabrics. Contemporary Textiles in Fashion, London 2006, p. 57ff. See also Phelps, Nicole: Kenzo. Fall 2005 Ready-to-Wear (05.03.2005), in:, [Retrieved: 03.08.2016].

[5] E.g. overhandle, merchandize, even-handedness, handholding etc.

[6] Heidegger, Martin: Was heißt Denken?, Tübingen 1954, p. 57.

[7] Lindemann, Kurt: Die Bedeutung der menschlichen Hand (= Heidelberger Jahrbücher; vol. VIII), Berlin [et al] 1964, S. 1f.