Peace in 10,000 Hands is the project of artist Stuart Robertson. He is photographing the rose, an ancient symbol of peace, in the hands of 10,000 people from every country on the planet.
It is an unstoppable project with a ripple effect that reaches around the plant.
You can find out more on the practice of Stuart Robertson’s art in this piece by Mark Hutchins-Pond,
Contemporary Art Curator at Pātaka Art + Museum
A single white rose… symbolises purity, virtue, reverence, humility, loyalty and sacred love.
The colour white is universally understood as a symbol of innocence, of natural beauty unspoiled and virtue untarnished. But for Stuart Robertson, above all else, the single white rose serves as a powerful, timeless symbol for Peace.
As anyone can see, Stu Robertson’s Peace in 10,000 Hands portraits are extraordinary. The format of the vast majority of them is simple - a single human subject photographed ‘front on’ from the waste up proffering the white rose towards the camera - yet each image is as totally unique as the person it portrays. Some of the subjects are instantly recognisable; international celebrities, Hollywood movie stars, cultural icons or famous sporting or music personalities; while others appear totally unfamiliar to us until Robertson introduces us to them through his camera.
So what is it that makes these works so poignant? I believe it’s the sincerity we perceive in the faces and gestures of those portrayed as they demonstrate their unifying desire for a peaceful world.
Kofi Annan, seventh Secretary-General to the United Nations and one of the most eloquent advocates for Peace in our time, referred to ‘Art’ as ‘civilization’s first global movement’. There is no doubt that the universal language of a powerful image can cross most cultural barriers. Robertson’s success in persuading so many culturally diverse people from around the world to be part of his project, often without the aid of a common spoken let alone written language is testament to that.
Images generate emotional sub-conscious responses in us before conditioned intellectual objectifying of what we see gets in the way. If the initial emotional response is powerful enough, it can actually short-circuit secondary rationalisation. After many viewings, I continue to find the images in Robertson’s Peace in 10,000 Hands project emotionally moving; some profoundly so. These works seem to cut straight to the heart of what it means to be human and gently resonate it back to our own reality.
Thanks to the proliferation of social media networks, today’s image makers have the means to distribute their works to mass international audiences in an instant. It can be said that now more than ever before, art has the potential to challenge people’s ideas and provoke change.
Robertson works very hard at achieving this goal, getting his Peace in 10,000 Hands images out there via websites, social media, news media and in hard copy and digital publications, and he’s been very successful at this. But for me, nothing compares with the intimate, personal experience of standing directly in front of these images in a gallery.
In the majority of the works exhibited at Pataka Art + Museum, the people portrayed are life-size or larger. When you enter the gallery you can’t avoid feeling their physical presence in the space and, in many cases, their eyes upon you. Although initially a little confronting, the warmth of the expressions on all of their faces soon makes you want to draw closer and engage with these likenesses more directly.
The single white silk rose at the centre of nearly all of these works is the same. Robertson has now photographed close to 2,500 people holding this rose. He carries it as a treasured taonga wherever he goes. When he’s struck by a subject he is moved to photograph, he approaches them with the rose, shares the dream of his project with them - as best he can, and asks them to hold the rose and think of what Peace means to them. The rose they all hold has never been ‘washed’ during its journey through the hands of 2,500 people. A natural anti-bacterial water-based spray containing grapefruit seed has been sprayed on the petals a couple of times but other than that, its surface patina has been left undisturbed, gradually absorbing the energy inherent in everyone who touches it. Through Robertson’s perpetuation of this ritual, the rose has been transformed from a symbolic compositional element into a physical manifestation of connected between everyone who has been involved in Peace in 10,000 Hands.
Robertson mentioned that when he started this project he used the rose as his central compositional and conceptual focus. The features of his sitters were always readable, allowing famous faces to be easily identified, but the personality of the ‘holder’ of rose was softly drawn in the background. These images were about the rose’s talismanic quality and the effect holding it was having on the person being photographed. As the series progressed, Robertson began to experiment more with depths of field and started capturing a lot more visual information of the sitter and surrounding detail.
It’s inevitable that most of us are initially drawn to the portraits of celebrities which you can take delight in immediately identifying. Robertson utilises this predictable response to great advance in quickly capturing his audience’s attention. Once engaged, the viewer then moves on to ‘meet’ the less familiar and unknown faces.
As I’ve gradually become more familiar with most of the images in this exhibition I’ve found I continue to seek out the anonymous faces of sitters whose eyes appear sharply in focus. As I stare, their eyes seem to mesmerise me. It’s as though I’m able to tap into the sitter’s own thoughts at the moment the photograph was taken; that fraction of a second Robertson has managed to capture and preserve for thousands of viewers to later relive. Maybe, because they’re not famous, at least not to me, it feels easer to meet their direct gaze and emotionally identify with them. I don’t know…
Stu Robertson is, of course, as much a teller of tales as he is an image maker. The conveying of personal narrative plays a huge part in what makes his Peace in 10,000 Hands series so compelling. His choice of subject and composition is always carefully considered and he usually leaves subtle visual clues to the stories behind the faces he photographs in the images he constructs.
The titles of the photographs also indicate the artist’s narrative intent and when Robertson provides accompanying captions, he candidly shares with his audience what originally moved him to take the picture. Knowing these backstories enables viewers to establish empathy with the sitter, understand their personal circumstances, and connect with them on a human level.
Robertson is obviously attracted to beauty in many forms. The beauty his sitters possess may some times appear unconventional from a traditional western perspective but all of them express a form of natural grace. Luscious, sensually invigorating colour is another element the artist plays with in more recent works. Chromatic warmth radiates from works printed on metallic paper while Robertson applies neon text in primary colours on top of photographic images in a subseries of fist tattoos. When electricity powers up the neon in a dimmed gallery space, the tattooed mantras initially outshine the rose held up by the hands they are drawn upon, but, as your eyes adjust to the light levels, the rose begins to reflect the colour of the neon below it.
Although most of the texts of these fist tattoos are upbeat; love life, stay true, make time, others remind us that, despite its beauty, the real world can be a hard and dangerous place for the vulnerable. A brooding sense of threat or unease that permeates a proportion of Robertson’s images seems to acknowledge this. It’s as if the pristine beauty of the innocent garden cannot be fully appreciated without the contrast the snake provides. Robertson also seems to be reminding us that real beauty can sometimes be found in unexpected places.
Another work featuring tattoos; the light box portrait of Trigger, encapsulates many of these conflicting evocations. This work is outstandingly beautiful. As its internal light-source gently modulates through the prismatic spectrum, waves of tantalising colour entice the viewer to take a closer look. As you do so, apparently abstract gestural marks that striate the light box come into focus, revealing the frightening image of a half-naked man brutalized by a life of crime and violence. At first it’s quite difficult to clearly make out his features beneath the crude, densely layered scarification that covers every exposed inch of his head, arms and torso. But, if you focus on his eyes, the disturbing veneer of his gang-related tattoos softens and blurs, revealing a calm, contemplative expression.
When Trigger was asked by Stu what it meant to him to hold the rose he said “I’m doing it for my children”. He knew better than to hope for a better life for himself, he was beyond redemption, but he desperately hoped for a different, happier, peaceful life for his children.
The works in Peace in 10,000 Hands that speak of personal triumphs of the human spirit against, poverty, physical hardship or suppression are among those I find the most moving. Robertson manages to capture a dignity in these works which inspires and humbles all who view them. Some of the sitters smile, some of them don’t but all their faces convey strength, resilience and self-possession. Somehow, in his portrait of the indentured woman in Bound, Robertson has managed to facilitate empathetic connection between viewer and sitter without us being able to see her face. Incredible…
The exhibition at Pātaka Art + Museum celebrates Stu Robertson’s completion of the first quarter of his journey to capture Peace in 10,000 Hands. The images he has created to date are astonishing; it’s hard imagine how he can continue to develop and expand upon what has already become a magnum opus, and yet there is no doubt he will. In his own words, Robertson’s “passion for seeing the world through an alternative view runs deep”.
His profound compassion for humanity and determined commitment to refocus global attention onto the universal desire for Peace is what has driven him to achieve what he has at this point.
Two thousand, five hundred down, seven thousand, five hundred to go I eagerly await more images from Stu Robertson journey towards Peace in 10,000 Hands.
Contemporary Art Curator
Pātaka Art + Museum