A gentle signature in the art of Hannah Leighton-Boyce

Compassionate attention (After Yvonne Rainer), 2022

‘Time, it takes time, we all need time.


In a few years I imagine my home at first sight looking as if it might be abandoned, on keener gaze understood to be occupied with gentleness. There’s nothing I want to do but wait, wait and see. Wait and we’ll see, we will see.’

Jeremy Cooper, Ash Before Oak, 78.

Hannah’s hands

At Hospitalfield, on the east coast of Scotland, we sat on the grass and talked of the relative precarity of our lives momentarily left behind in the city of M, in the country of E.

Distracted by the play of my children.

The skin-coloured compression gloves fleetingly drew my attention to Hannah’s ill hands.

The same hands that appear in a small video piece made by the artist that summer. Freed from the pain-reducing constriction of the nylon, the naked hands are seen to perform a small dance, ritual or exercise routine in the pinky-red haze of the image’s frame. Compassionately attended to by each other and the unseen body to which they more or less belong, the hands are caught in a moment of playful respite, their graceful lightness contrasting a more painful everyday manual encounter with the material world.

The weightless freedom of the hand rests on the weighted support of an unseen body to which it remains attached by an arm. Reflecting on this dynamic of an almost freed hand, suspended from, yet belonging to a body’s experience of gravity and weight, I am overcome with a sense of familiarity with the image of a floating, if not flying hand, and soon enough remember its context.

In a small book I bought and partially read in my youth, by the Brazilian, Czech-born media philosopher, writer and journalist Vilém Flusser, consisting of a number of ‘essays on nature and culture’, with the evocative German title Vogelflüge (birdflights), a short passage found in a chapter on the shifting metaphors and myths of flight in the context of the technological history of aviation, Flusser puts into play a series of similes or analogies between birds, hands and angels that have had a lasting impression on me. Stung some twenty years ago by the rich poetic imagery amongst the dryer theoretical prose, I have repeatedly been led to return to the heavily marked-up passages since, tempted by some new context or another, to follow Flusser on hands that are angles that are birds. So here I go again, gently led by Hannah’s hands, in search of the little pink book with the grainy, black and white photograph on its cover depicting the silhouette of a bird, its wings stretched vertically in the air, suspended at the very moment before the downward movement of the flap were to facilitate the creature’s graceful ascent.

The hands are very specifically human organs, which became possible thanks to the upright posture of the body and which nearly move freely in space. Hands live in a structurally similar climate to flying birds. The flying bird is a flying hand, a hand freed from the body, a body completely become hand. The movement of the hand is perception, comprehension, grasping and transformation into the “depth” of space. That is the myth of flight: freedom to perceive, to understand, to grasp and to transform.

For our ancestors the bird was a link between an animal and an angel. Not completely angel, because subjected to the earth’s gravity. It lifts off from the earth, concentrates on the earth, returns to the earth and builds its nest on it. The angel is a hand, which is attached to the body of the earth by an invisible arm. The angel is an extra-terrestrial bird. It concentrates its interest on space and lives in space. It is a hand freed from the body. The myth of spirit as dove. The angel is a being, which perceives, comprehends, grasps and transforms: pure spirit. A hand freed from the body is pure spirit. Its model is the flight of birds.

Vilém Flusser, Vogelflüge, 30.

Hospitalfield, a large, Gothic, mediaeval country house built from red sand-stone in the 13th century as a leprosy and plague hospice run by monks from nearby Abroath abbey, which in the mid-19th century became a rural art college and trust for the support of young artists, today hosts a centre for the arts that exhibits and commissions works, as well as runs a number of artist residency schemes, continuing a long history of its function as a place of hospitality, convalescence and retreat.

Hannah was on a residency here and I in the company of L, who was working on the annual Beer & Berries Festival to be held that weekend. As every year, L had organized a number of talks and workshops on a chosen theme and this year’s topic, on the uses of plants in the treatment of illness, was of abundant interest to Hannah.

Later that night, in the spacious house looking out to the sea, next to the old trampoline by a field of wheat, where at times may be seen the undulating auburn hair of a female figure intermittently afloat in mid-air - lifting off from the earth, returning to the earth - Hospitalfield director LB, who did not yet know that we knew each other then, would talk to us compassionately about Hannah’s ill hands.

Before we left the next day, we visited Hannah’s studio, collecting the marshmallow plant dug from a local meadow that L had offered to take back in our car to the city of M. in the country of E. We talked about the anti-inflammatory properties of its leaves and roots used in the production of various medicines. Stood by Hannah’s work-desk, I noticed the copied pages of an article on Crip Time lying amongst the fragmented debris of a strange conglomeration of materials so often found in an artist’s studio, facilitating that singular process of perceiving, comprehending, grasping and transforming which make up a loving labour of art and care. Mentioning our interest in the broader field of the study of disabled or neuro-diverse experiences and negotiations of temporality in everyday processes of perception, comprehension, grasping and transformation, Hannah spoke to us in passing about the article’s importance to her.

Compassionate Attention

The first time I encountered Hannah’s floating hands against the background of a pinky-red haze was in the large decrepit hall of Blackburn’s Cotton Exchange, with its high, patterned, aquamarine ceiling, its tall gothic windows and elaborate stone tracery, its bare grey brick walls with flakes of green plaster and chipboard panels covering the openings of previous doors. In these spacious, airy and open surroundings, through which one moves with a certain lightness of step as if on a beach at low tide, lay scattered on industrial trolleys, low level tables and wooden crates a number of objects like gathered driftwood and washed up contraband assembled in neatly arranged groupings according to material, shape and size. Making my way quickly past horizontal assemblages of variously shaped pieces of white terra cotta in responsible but unpanicked pursuit of my running children, I arrive in front of a pink projection screen incorporated into a found, industrial structure made of rusted bars of steel, the second most vertical object besides a tower of stacked-up supporting blocks of polystyrene. Before settling my gaze on the video, I follow my son’s gesticulating hands following Hannah’s hands (following Yvonne Rainer).

On some level, the video of the hands is the most alien object within the totality of an installation that has grown out of a stretched-out, three-year Art in Manufacturing residency at Darwen Terracotta, the only work that neither is nor traces something found in the context of the factory setting. Yet the presence of the impaired hands taking time out in the pinky-red haze of the playful unproductivity of their slack time, experiencing pleasure and respite in a concentrated moment of self-care, colours everything that surrounds it. It begins to relate each object and material to the hands that have operated the tools and machines which produced them and highlights the alien presence of the artist in the factory setting. Conjuring a slower gestural and cognitive register of perceiving, comprehending, grasping, collecting, transforming, rearranging and caring for the objects, tools and materials gathered as remnants in the aftermath of industrial processes of production. Having my own compassionate attention drawn to the objects, materials and the spectral range of their manual handling, I begin to sense the weight and the feel of things as I rush past on my way out. Above all though, I am filled with the flimsy but palpable sense of a gentleness that permeates the considered, lighthearted gesture of their aftercare and assemblage.

The second time I encountered Hannah’s dancing hands was at a public conversation between Katie Schwab and Hannah Leighton-Boyce in front of a small audience in the intimate surroundings of Schwab’s installation for British Art Show 9 at the Whitworth art gallery, against the beautiful backdrop of a large, abstract, yellow and brown tapestry by the mid-century artist Hans Tisdall. Having successfully removed myself from the crip-time of parenthood for a rare chance to commit to the serious pursuit of cultural activity in municipal spaces, I arrive at the gallery looking ambivalently giddy and forlorn, anxious and somewhat keen, equipped with my notebook, pencil and undivided attention. As I recline in my chair with an emotional mixture of astonishment and trepidation, I begin to slowly relax into the kinesthetic sensations of following Hannah’s dancing, stretching, caressing hands on a large monitor at the front, before beginning to listen to the two artists converse.

Compassionate Attention (after Yvonne Rainer) is the name of a video work by Hannah Leighton-Boyce produced while on residency at Hospitalfield in 2021. At first impression, the title seemingly refers to an act of self-compassion and attention of the artist to her own (ill) hands, yet placed within the larger context of Leighton-Boyce’s work at Blackburn’s Cotton Exchange the following year, it might also be said to set the tone for the installation at large, a cumulation of a three-year Art in Manufacturing residency at Darwen Terracotta during which the artist has paid close, compassionate attention to the gestures of labour and the life of materials with a particular concern for the discarded, the fractured, the broken, the overlooked and the functionally too close to hand. In an endeavour to level the hierarchy between art and everyday objects, between materials and forms, between tools and end products, Leighton-Boyce has patiently assembled, gently transformed and lightly relaunched a number of found materials from the factory setting. But beyond the particulars of this work and the context of its production, ‘compassionate attention’ may perhaps also be read as the description of a more general modus operandi of perceiving, comprehending, grasping and transforming from which springs the gentle impress of a signature in the ongoing practice of Hannah Leighton-Boyce.

Listening to the two artists talk that evening in front of the
Tisdall tapestry, what struck me was their shared commitment to a
gesture of following in their work, whereby authorship emerges gently by simultaneously withdrawing itself in the modalities and trajectories of patient attention and research, of gathering and relaunching the found, of collaborating with the work(s) of others, in order to knowingly, deliberately and respectfully come after. It comes therefore as no surprise that the only work in the larger installation at Blackburn’s Cotton Exchange not in some way directly related to the context of the factory takes its cue from and relaunches the found context of Yvonne Rainer’s hand movie from 1966, shot during a momentary stay at the hospital. Rainer, who herself was interested in the repetition of found rather than the creation of expressive movement and famously rejected the theatrical bombast of spectacle in favour of removing the body from the gaze by absorbing it in task-based actions, seems more than a fitting hospital-bedfellow in the larger context of Leighton-Boyce’s work.

At the Whitworth, Hannah spoke about her residency at Darwen Terracotta, of that strange mingling of different temporalities, contrasting her slower artistic practice with the commercial demands of the industrial workshop. A seemingly unproductive slowness inherent to many modes of artistic production that allow for periodic drift and patient experiment, but is here amplified by the crip-time of Hannah’s ill hands. At the Whitworth, Hannah spoke of her affinity with the sculptor Mitzi Cunliffe, who’s own arthritic hands prevented her from using power tools, requiring the inventive and patient negotiation of time, space and material. She spoke of the resonance of Cunliffe’s concept of ‘amorphous vibration’ with her own enjoyment of the intervals of factory production, during which one patiently waits for the materials to perform their work. Moments of calm and interruption, in which materiality temporarily shows itself freed from all formal destinations. And Hannah spoke of her preference for ‘amorphous vibration’ over the rigidity of blueprints as a fitting way to describe a less fixed, open and temporary way of approaching forms and works. A letting ‘come to form’ of what can still always change in time. The gentleness of the active passivity and generative unproductivity of such waiting takes time. It takes time. We all need time. Patience. A word that here also carries a sense of the acceptance of suffering by a patient; one who receives medical treatment or bides their time to convalesce from illness

Swen Steinhäuser, 8th of February, 2023, Manchester.