Opinion

A Shadowy Richard Serra Video Break

Richard Serra’s “Hand Catching Lead” (1968, 16 mm black-and-white film, no sound) is a strangely appealing video that functions as well in the digital era as it probably did in its own time. It is a simple video that response as well to GIFing as viewing the short filmic original in a gallery.

If you are theoretically inclined, then I would suggest accompanying your viewing of the video with this essay by French theorist Jacques Derrida, “Heidegger’s Hand,” which examines the “hand” and its symbolism. The essay may transform your viewing of the short. As Derrida writes (in translation, p.172):

The hand’s being (das Wesen der Hand) does not let itself be determined as a bodily organ of gripping (als ein leibliches Greiforgan). It is not an organic part of the body intended [destinée] for grasping, taking hold [prendre], indeed for scratching, let us add even for catching on [prendre], comprehending, conceiving, if one passes from Greif to be greifen and to Begriff. Heidegger count not not let the thing say itself, and one can follow here, I have tried to do it elsewhere, the whole problematic of the philosophical “metaphor,” in particular in Hegel, who presents the Begriff as the intellectual or intelligible structure “relieving” (aufhebend) the sensible act of grasping, begreifen, of comprehending by taking hold of, by laying one’s hands on, mastering and manipulating.

The Centre Pompidou in Paris presented the Serra short film on a DVD from 2006, and described the video this way:

The mechanics of cinema are based on the division of the film into frames, projected one after another at a fixed rate of 24 frames per second, giving an illusion of continuity. Richard Serra’s film, “Hand Catching Lead,” illustrates the mechanism. Echoing the vertical movement of the film through the projector, pieces of sheet lead fall into the image field. Serra’s hand opens and closes as it tries to catch them, and when it succeeds, immediately lets them go again, reproducing the intermittent advance of the film. But that is not all, for as the action progresses, Serra’s hand, blackened by the lead, shadow-like comes to resemble the silhouette of a dog trying to catch something thrown to it, thus referring the mechanics of cinema back to its origins in the art of shadow theatre.

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