University of Southern Indiana

New Harmony Gallery of Contemporary Art


February 28 - April 10

Rock Paper Scissors: A Game of Chance?

Dr. Joni Hand, Assistant Professor of Art History

Southeast Missouri State University


Rock, paper, scissors is a game that originated in Asia in the third century CE. The name of the game changed over the centuries depending on the period and place it was used. In Japan, for instance, its earliest manifestation was known as mushi-ken. In this version of the game, instead of rock, paper, and scissors, the three elements were frog, represented by the thumb; slug, represented by the pinky; and snake, represented by the index finger. The better-known elements of rock, paper, and scissors were adopted later in Japan, at which time the name of the game became janken. The game did not become popular in the United States until the early 20th century.

Regardless of its name or where it was played, the basic rules remained the same over the centuries: rock smashes scissors, scissors cut paper, and paper covers rock. Using simple hand gestures that represent each of the elements of the game, players could settle disputes or make decisions for the group. In this context, rock, paper, scissors was a game of chance, each player randomly choosing a symbol to present to the other participant. However, if a player took advantage of the non-random behavior of his or her opponent, the game could be played with a degree of skill. It is this dichotomy between random choices and conscious decisions that this exhibition addresses.

            This exhibition includes artists who work in many different media. The materials presented in this show are therefore numerous. Materiality, in some cases, is the focus of the artist’s work, and the way in which he or she chose to demonstrate the theme of rock, paper, and scissors. Kathy Smith’s pieces, for example, are works on paper. Her interpretation of the theme is based on the materials used during her process. In addition, Smith incorporates imagery that recalls stone and brick. In her piece The Big Country, for instance, a mountain in the background of her composition provides a platform from which her figures cascade downward. The peak appears to jut from the earth, which abruptly thrusts the figures and animals into the air where chaos ensues.

Chris Wubbena, on the other hand, demonstrates the theme of rock, paper, scissors through the presence of his works. They are relatively small in size, however they exude a monumentality that is usually reserved for sculptures of a much larger scale. Their permanence comes through by means of the bronze and steel that Wubbena incorporates into his works. These materials mimic the natural elements of stone and earth, which are symbolic of stability and solidity. Wubbena’s sculptures have an affect on the viewer similar to the one experienced when looking at the Venus of Willendorf. In both cases, small is not insignificant, but sublime.

In some cases, the artists in this exhibition took a literal approach to the theme of rock, paper, scissors. Caroline Kahler, for instance, created shrine-like objects that elevate the element of the game to an iconic level. In her piece, Stitched Rocks, for example, Kahler divides a box into three segments, each of which is dedicated to one of the elements of the game. Her interpretation of the theme is concrete in that it removes the symbolic nature of rock, paper, scissors, represented by the hand gestures, and replaces them with the objects themselves. In this reading of the work, Kahler also eliminates the element of chance, which is a component of the game. By defining the elements so clearly, she removes confusion as to the meaning of the game of rock, paper, scissors. As a result, the power that each object holds, which in the game is translated through the hand gestures, is apparent.

Rather than negating the symbolic nature of rock, paper, scissors, Hannah Sanders comments on the tenuous and intangible components of the game, through her crocheted piece, Foot Print No. 18: Smoking Spilt Milk. Her work addresses the chaos and beauty found in nature, particularly in weather patterns. The element of chance, which is integral to rock, paper, scissors, is clearly represented in this piece. Destructive weather events, such as Hurricane Katrina, are dictated by chance. Although we try to predict when and where these events will occur, we are still at the mercy of nature, which can be fickle. At one moment, we are admiring its beauty, and in the next, admonishing its destructive power.

These artists, and the others whose works are in this exhibition, have considered the theme of rock, paper, scissors in their own way. Whether working in clay, steel, paper, or mixed media, each has addressed one or more aspects of the game. The element of chance, materiality, and the literal interpretation of the name of the game are some of the ways that this goal has been met. Viewers can determine the outcome of this exploration as they consider the works in this exhibition. Will rock beat scissors? Will scissors cut paper? Or will paper cover rock?

The New Harmony Gallery of Contemporary Art is an outreach partner of the University of Southern Indiana. The gallery is located at 506 Main Street in New Harmony, Indiana. Regular hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, call 812/682-3156 

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