It’s a funny thing, a handshake, yet it’s used to signify so many different things.
We shake hands to seal a deal, to congratulate an opponent who has just humiliated us at one game or another (smashed the living daylights out of us at rugby) when presenting or receiving a prize or when bumping into a friend. Mainly, though, we shake hands when we meet people for the first time, whether being introduced to them by a third party or attending a prearranged rendezvous. It is so common that we take it for granted, which is a shame, although nowadays handshakes are being omitted from social interaction or are being replaced by a fist bump.
The first recorded handshakes were performed in the 5th Century BC by the Greeks. The idea was that it was a sign of peace meant to show the stranger that you were not carrying a weapon. As being left-handed was a sign that you were in league with the devil, the right hand is always used, being the arms-toting one. Up until the 17th Century women could be tried for being witches and executed simply for being left-handed. As an aside, this is why we drive on the left – horse mounted travellers would pass each other right arm to right arm so that they could defend themselves if attacked. The handshake progressed through the ages. The Romans would grasp each others’ right forearm with their left hand whilst shaking hands to make sure that there were no concealed weapons up their sleeves. This was replaced in the Middle Ages by the now familiar up and down movement which would shake any illicit dagger from their armour. If it didn’t drop out, I’m sure it would have made a heck of a rattle!
The thing about a handshake is that it is a transitory experience and once executed there is nothing, other than perhaps a photograph, to record it. This is where the artists Brenda Unwin and Sarah Caputo come in.
Last November, as part of the Compass Live Art Festival, they set up shop in Leeds Bus Station for three days and asked total strangers if they would shake hands with each other. To record the event the artists placed a piece of Yorkshire clay between the hands of the subjects and took them away for firing – that’s the pieces of clay, not the people – and the results are now on display in a pop-up gallery in Bond Court. They had put on a similar event on a smaller scale in order to show the benefits which immigrants had brought to their native Norfolk over the centuries, possibly even those from as far afield as Ipswich.
How strange, then, that such a simple idea could produce such an intriguing exhibition. I suppose that that is why they are artists and I’m not. Although the action is over in two shakes (sorry) the effect on the participants often lasted much longer and once introduced and the formalities completed, many of them struck up conversations and disappeared together towards town, including two families who realised that they were going to the same pantomime and a young couple who seemed to get on instantly. The stories of the people who passed through the bus station during the three days of the exercise were as diverse as the travellers themselves. There was a chap who had been to report to his probation officer, a young man who was ecstatic after attending two job interviews and been offered both positions, two women who made a clay impression despite both having a phobia about getting their hands dirty and a PhD student from Indonesia on his way home after a day at the library.
The format of the display was also interesting as the impressions had been suspended by the use of fishing line. This was the preferred presentation method, rather than the pieces simply being laid in a display cabinet, because it signified that they were created in midair when the handshake took place. It took three people, a kilometre of fishing line and fourteen hours to get the gallery set up. Eventually, there were 599 handshakes so 1,198 people took part. Actually, that’s not strictly true as Sarah shook ‘hands’ with two dogs.
The exhibition has been organised by Compass Live Art in conjunction with their backers, a list of whom can be found on their website https://compassliveart.org.uk