Nikolai Kokx reviewed - June 2018

The Hand-made self

The Hand

20 photographs by Nikolai Kokx

Photospace, Wellington

22 June - 16 July 2018

Reviewed by Peter Ireland


The fate of an art school graduate soon with a young family remains a vexatious one. Cyril Connolly’s oft-quoted “pram in the hall” comes to mind as a metaphor for the dilemma. So does the phrase “use it or lose it”. The chronicle of the passing years is littered by idealistic young artists who, after leaving art school, collide head on with the brutal realities of earning a crust and keeping a family together. Keeping a practice alive and developing creatively can become a challenge of heroic proportions.

Although Kokx graduated with a BFA in painting in 1998 his Spartan exhibition history has been the showing of his photographs, most memorably in 2005 at Masterton’s Aratoi with a collection of 23 self-portrait Polaroids, and occasionally since at McNamara Photography in Whanganui. In the meantime, along with his responsibilities as a father and a bread-winner as an art teacher, he has continued using a camera to delineate his relationship with the world via the twinned environments of home and school.

A great deal of human endeavour and achievement can be attributable to hands, and the language is rich in associations: hand-made, hands-on, handy, with the words manual and manufacture deriving from the Latin word manus. Our hands are probably the most individual things about humans after their faces – and happen to be much more useful. Wiser too, since they remain silent. Because of their role in, literally, shaping destiny hands have a metonymic function as stand-ins for specific human identity (1).

Identity as a subject risks becoming something of a cliché in contemporary art, and, in terms of attracting attention, seems often to be taking advantage of the sensationalist aspects of the plight of the transgendered. In such cases it’s sometimes hard to determine the boundary between genuine social concern and the salacious attractions of the freak-show.  Of course, the odd is what “news” is about – the ordinary lacks charm for voracious media agendas.

Kokx’s photographs of the self-inked hands – extending to wrists and lower arms - of his anonymous students speak of ordinary, teenage explorations of identity. There’s an element of peer-group fashion, admittedly, but these austere black and white photographs of modest scale reveal a shifting range of (probably unconscious) strategies to state an individuality at a time of transition from childhood to early maturity. The long history of tattooing is a continuous tradition of indicating status, tribal affiliation and individual achievement, as well as, on occasion, instances of slaves and prisoners marked to indicate their subjugation – in a 21st century school, could there be a more effective response? A protest at the socially conformist tendencies of formal education: the uniforms, the haircuts, sitting in straight lines, prohibitions against jewellery, being photographed in balanced lines, from taller to shorter, and so on and on.

In terms of accumulated experience, though, teenagers generally don’t have much to go on, so the marking tends to be as formulaic as tagging (with which it shares an affinity) or design-oriented. Kokx’s images reveal some melodramatic inked stitches, band-aids and so forth, and the designs range from minimal to over-the-top, from the crude to the extremely sophisticated where the relationship to the body has been taken into consideration, as the accompanying illustrations will indicate.

The Hand is a memorable and arresting statement about statements, a revelatory group of austerely telling images providing an insight into lives under the pressure of discovery; a potent mix of anxiety about social placement and an optimism about forging identity. The show’s a classroom of valuable and quite touching information, with subjects to hand.

(1)   In Whanganui there’s a walk-through sculptural spiral in Queens Park by potter Ross Mitchell-Anyon, the surface of which is covered by ceramic plaques featuring the imprints of hundreds of human hands, from children’s to the elderly’s, a monument to human endeavour across the spectrum.

Former photography curator, Peter Ireland has been writing about images and issues in photography for the past forty years and still finds the medium compelling, stimulating and rewarding.

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Untitled, 2014