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Review of Barbara Heller’s “Integrated Circuits and Other Connections” by Bettina Matzkuhn.

Golden hands. Barbara Heller reminds us that our hands, as extensions of the synapses and neurons of our brains, are ever the focus of who we are and what we do. Even in our technological age, our hands are on switches, joysticks, keyboards. Our fingers swipe, order, answer, delete and send. They append emoticons. Our emotions may not be automated, but many of our communications are. Still, they are constructed by our hands.
The alluring hands in this show inhabit two sections: a collection of small diptychs, Reliquaries, and the Mudras, slightly larger works mounted on wooden embroidery hoops.
Reliquaries contain sacred things, and by praying to them or touching them, the faithful hope to gain a measure of protection. Heller’s Reliquaries are organized as a grid: golden hands woven into wool rectangles are aligned across the top. Below are other tightly woven wool rectangles used as bases for a seemingly disparate collection of found objects: orphaned keys, a damaged bird skull, tiny jawbones, barnacled mussel shells, a cheap bracelet/ring, Hebrew characters on squares like Scrabble tiles. The most intriguing of these are two panels with little toy soldier models anchored into the weaving with golden thread. As if binding them with the thread might make them lay down their sharp little guns, or at least stop them from running amok. Perhaps the golden hands picked up, kept and reframed these objects, giving them a new context and value, but now the hands face us, disembodied and disconnected, like a new kind of stop sign. If a reliquary once offered the possibility of protection, these seem to form a fragile barrier.
“Mudras” –in Buddhism and Hinduism, are symbolic gestures used in ceremonies as a sort of prayer or promise– and Heller’s speak to us in a long line. The golden hands, are densely woven in animated freeze-frames, faintly glittery, and mounted on stretched fabric that features a patterned print. Its motif is strangely three-dimensional, a maze-like grid of circuits that overlap and recede. The green luminosity evokes sci-fi dashboards and, with all those right angles, piles of money. The golden hands, implying a different sort of value, are either embedded in snaking wires or grasp ones that seem to have “live” and dangerous loose ends. Sometimes, the hands are quite literally attached to wires. Embedded in these webs are bits of circuits from unidentified electronics: pretty, yet inscrutable as to their origin or purpose.
To “manipulate”, according to Merriam Webster, can mean “to manage or utilize skillfully” or “to control…by artful, unfair, or insidious means.” Heller reinforces this double-sided capability: our hands/brains create remarkable objects and perform feats in every aspect of human endeavour, but they also control. Increasingly, in the digital world, we are unaware of the myriad strings we are attached to, and of who might be pulling them. The hands are elegantly drawn, but in comparison to the jewel-like electronics, seem large and even awkward. Are the circuits of our bodies and the electronic ones indeed integrated or is this just the beginning of a time-lapse image where the golden hands will be subsumed into the green and copper?