‘Wave’ by Sigune Hamann

Visitors and passers-by will find themselves greeted by unknown figures waving to them at Wellcome Collection this March as a new art installation takes over the building’s foyer and windows.

'Wave', by the German-born artist Sigune Hamann, brings together an array of still and moving images of waving figures, capturing moments of joy, heartbreak, friendship and curiosity. The installation features more than 50 different recorded waves in a mesmerising gestural montage that sees hands raised in farewell, seduction, welcome and desperation, as figures wave to each other, to the camera and to visitors.

Hamann's interest in this enigmatic gesture, among the first we learn, began with a curiosity about strangers waving at her during her travels. She then came across a collection of 1960s photographs of Berliners waving to relatives across the newly erected Berlin Wall, a practice soon declared illegal by the East German authorities.

Fascinated by the range of the meanings and feelings a wave can suggest, or provoke, Hamann began to make her own photographic portraits of people waving. 'Wave' moves between England, Germany and Japan, where Hamann's subjects are caught hauntingly mid-gesture - the familiar signal is made strange by the uncertainty of intent.

Found images, documentary footage and film add further waves to the installation. The earliest image records British soldiers leaving a French harbour during WW1, and the latest are from a workshop with children in Berlin in 2011.

Among the arresting waves in the show, Agfa camera advertisements feature the outstretched wave of a model extending into a Nazi salute, and station platform waves of arrival and departure are shot through with the pleasure of reunion and the pain of separation. A lone figure afloat on debris in the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami of 2011 waves desperately to attract attention, and small hands emerging through train windows record the goodbyes of evacuated children from cities during the Blitz.

A fundamentally reciprocal gesture, there are images in Hamann's collection that feature people waving at each other, but in many of the pictures one half of the exchange is out of shot. The viewer is compelled to complete the wave's story and draw on the hundreds of small dramas that even the most fleeting of waves can suggest. The kaleidoscope of waves in 'Wave' is a colourful panoply of human acknowledgement, though which we sustain and make sense of our lives.

'Wave' will be accompanied by a small publication by Camberwell Press and an online archive of waves, where visitors can juxtapose waves and contribute to them. Waves can be uploaded at the Wellcome Collection website.

Sigune Hamann says: "'Wave' is a subjective archive of images, both staged and found. Beginning with the idea of negotiating contact with strangers, extending to photographic workshops with children, I collect, sort, isolate and juxtapose images ranging from small daily encounters to tragic moments of separation.

"The frozen movement of the gesture in a photograph and the infinite short video loops are signposts to journeys and migration, past and future. Connecting different eras and places, 'Wave' gives a sense of parallel lives, the haunting repetitions of history and the melancholy of recognition in a time of change."

Ken Arnold, Head of Public Programmes at Wellcome Collection, says: "The simple wave, perhaps our most basic gesture, carries an extraordinary emotional charge. It is both a demand and response, signalling friendship or hostility, wellbeing or distress. Sigune Hamann's work brilliantly teases out the ambiguities of this everyday gesture, and Wellcome Collection is the perfect place to showcase her intriguing investigation of this unthinking aspect of all our lives, celebrating its strangeness and ambiguity."