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Digital Mudra (1986-89), Bibeau Krueger, New York
by Logan Royce Beitmen, April 22, 2024

Sonya Rapoport (1923-2015) was an important innovator of digital and Internet-based art, as well as conceptual art, although her work is still not widely known outside of Berkeley, California, where she spent most of her adult life. The gallery Bibeau Krueger in Tribeca is aiming to change that by presenting her first solo show in New York City since 1981. Digital Mudra—a series of photocollages, a slide show, and an editioned work of interactive computer software created between 1986 and 1989—explores the linguistic relativity of the hand signs known as mudras. The work exhibits a compelling mix of scholarly sincerity and deadpan wit.


Mudras are symbolic gestures with an ancient pedigree in South Asia. Those familiar with Buddhist art may know the abhaya (“no fear”) mudra, an outward-facing palm communicating benevolence. And if you saw the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show, you may remember the rapper M.I.A. raising two middle fingers to the camera, for which the NFL later sued her for $16.6 million. M.I.A. told reporters that what she had performed was a “godly” mudra associated with her namesake, the goddess Matangi. “Of course, the NFL is not believing that,” she said, “because the NFL does not believe in any other culture outside of the NFL.” To be fair, the rapper probably intended the gesture to carry multiple meanings, but the incident reveals the thorny nature of interpreting mudras cross-culturally.


Sonya Rapoport learned about mudras from the esteemed Kathakali performer K.P. Kunhiraman, with whom she collaborated. The Kathakali tradition, from Kerala in South India, boasts one of the most elaborate systems of mudras ever developed, and Rapoport used an illustrated book of Kathakali mudras as a reference for analyzing gestures she sourced from popular culture. On one wall of the installation at Bibeau Krueger, an old-school slide projector whirs and clicks as it projects appropriated images of then-current figures from newspapers and comic books—everyone from Ronald Reagan and Yasser Arafat to Dennis the Menace and Calvin and Hobbes—juxtaposed with the Kathakali illustrations. Do the outstretched hands of the disgraced Marine officer Oliver North mean “happiness and health,” as they do in a traditional Kathakali performance? Probably not. But sometimes the comparisons are hilariously on the nose, as when the cartoon characters Calvin and Hobbes, splashing around in a puddle, accidentally reproduce the mudra for water.

Photocollages in plexi boxes occupy two other walls of the cozy gallery. In these works, Rapoport has layered the Kathakali illustrations on top of photographs culled from a previous computer-mediated performance, Biorhythm (1983). Each of these photocollages includes two captions, set in different typefaces, one giving the traditional meaning of the mudra and the other telling what the person in the photograph said they were thinking or feeling when they happened to make a similar-looking hand gesture. Just as in the slide show, sometimes the meanings align, and sometimes they don’t. Although this work was made years before the World Wide Web, let alone contemporary AI, it anticipates many of the problems with search engine algorithms and machine learning tools, which, as we know, make lots of mistakes and are not immune from cultural biases.


Installation view; Photo credit: Michael Popp

The final component of Digital Mudra is a limited edition floppy disk containing a piece of interactive software Rapoport created. Due to archival concerns, the disk cannot be played, but I am told it contains a series of animated mudras with captions. One clicks the mudras and is given words with which to write a poem. Your poem is then fed through an algorithm, which spits back a line from the Nobel-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore. The work has a lighthearted, gamelike feel—something like an interactive fortune cookie—but also serves to illustrate the difference between the mathematical language of computers and the soulfulness of human poetry. Incidentally, Rapoport was part of a community of creative tech-heads who would mail each other software like this—an early snail-mail Internet, of sorts.


Rapoport was born a century ago, just a few years after Elaine de Kooning. She studied under the social realist painter Reginald Marsh at the Art Students League and began her art career as an Abstract-Expressionist. It’s almost mind-boggling to imagine someone from that generation ever being at the forefront of interactive digital art, considering that I once knew a particularly grumpy Ab-Exer who refused to use email well into the twenty-first century. But the insatiably curious Rapoport was an early adopter of tech. In 1980, when computer programming was still done with punch cards—and when the artist herself was nearing 60—she enrolled in her first coding classes and learned the Pascal language, which she used to create her first interactive, computer-based work, Objects on My Dresser (1981). 


Rapoport exhibited that work at Franklin Furnace in New York, which showed Martha Rosler the same year. By all rights, Rapoport should be known and studied alongside artists like Martha Rosler, John Baldessari, Richard Prince, and Laurie Anderson, all of whom were making similarly conceptual, language-focused work, though not with computers. John Baldessari’s video piece I Am Making Art (1970) and Martha Rosler’s video piece Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) aren’t about mudras, per se, but they show the artists making various kinds of “gestures,” which, in part, were meant to parody and critique “gestural” abstraction. Richard Prince’s early photocollages like Untitled (Three men’s hands with watches) (1980) apply a computer-like logic of categorization to appropriated stock imagery of hands. Just a few years before Rapoport began making Digital Mudras, Laurie Anderson performed America (1983), which used appropriated imagery from the NASA Voyager mission’s golden record to interrogate whether human hand gestures could ever truly be “universal.” These and other conceptual works from the late 1970s and 80s explored stereotyped hand gestures as linguistic systems to be analyzed and deconstructed. Rapoport took it a step further by consciously invoking the machine logic of digital algorithms, and she was also unique among American artists of that time for recognizing that a highly sophisticated system for categorizing hand gestures already existed in South Asia. 


At this point, it is worth mentioning that the Sanskrit word “mudra” didn’t originally refer to hand gestures at all but to the stamps that ancient administrators stamped their official documents with, just as the English word “stereotype” originally referred to metal printmaking stamps. Rapoport’s Digital Mudra is a collection of stereotyped gestures, which she digitally archived and matched according to algorithmic logic. Her work strips away any New Age associations one may have with the word mudra, focusing instead on the idea of mudra as a trope. Four decades later, in the age of AI, the work feels oddly prescient. Although some of the cutting-edge technologies she used have since become obsolete, the questions Rapoport raises about the future of communication in an increasingly globalized world, and one increasingly mediated by machines, are as relevant as ever. 


Bibeau Krueger is not alone in rediscovering a digital art pioneer. Also on view in New York right now is a three-floor, museum-quality exhibition of Stan VanDerBeek’s work at Magenta Plains, which runs through May 4th, and a rather more uneven survey of Lynn Hershman Leeson’s work at Bridget Donahue, up through May 18th. Auriea Harvey, the youngest artist in this current wave of rediscovery, is the subject of a major survey at the Museum of the Moving Image, on view through July 7th, and a solo at Bitforms Gallery through May 25th. 


Sonya Rapoport: Digital Mudra is on view at Bibeau Krueger through May 4th. The gallery is open by appointment. 

Images courtesy the Sonya Rapoport Legacy Trust.


Digital Mudra: Biorhythm Correlations (Heat), 1987. Photographic print, Plexiglas frame, print on acetate, and labels, approximately 10W x 8H x 1.5D inches.

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