Friday, March 27, 2009

Video artist incorporates "blind men and elephant" into film

From the review in the Boston Globe:

I did not go to "Acting Out: Social Experiments in Video" at the Institute of Contemporary Art with high hopes. Years of experience have led me to approach
earnestly titled group shows of video art with something less than hopping enthusiasm. Moreover, I do not, as a rule, like watching human beings used in experiments, social or otherwise; it feels like an imposition - on my time, and theirs.

But I suggest you see "Acting Out." It's pretty lean, pretty interesting, prettily
installed, and worth the price of admission and the tax on your time for one work alone: a gorgeous, somber, and utterly engrossing 27-minute film by the New York-based Venezuelan Javier Téllez.

The film is called "Letter on the Blind, for the Use of Those Who See." The ponderous title matches the ponderousness of its star: a very docile elephant with exquisitely freckled ears. It stands, unmoving, in the center of a filled-in city swimming pool. One at a time, a series of blind people approach the beast, touch it for a minute or two, and move back to the bench they started out from. That person then reflects on the experience (this is heard in voice-over as the camera homes in on a patch of the elephant's darkly undulant skin) before the next person approaches at the signal of a whistle.

Téllez, who often works with mentally or physically challenged people, is improvising on a theme set out in an Indian parable known as "The Six Blind Men and the Elephant." Six wise but blind men approach an elephant and, each feeling a different part of its anatomy, come to different conclusions about what it is. The moral, presumably, is that one shouldn't leap to wrong-headed conclusions on the basis of scant evidence. But of course, like all the best parables, this one's flexible, and I don't think Téllez has anything particularly didactic in mind. Indeed, on the face of it, his film has all the hallmarks of an undergraduate psychology experiment: How do people react in unknown situations? With fear, or with openness and curiosity?

But what actually takes place in this series of extraordinary encounters between man and beast is so specific, so inimitable, so unpredictable, that it is impossible not to be moved.

One big man approaches confidently. With gliding, cherishing hands, he feels his way over the elephant's skin, finding its ears and face without strain, and whispering tender, awestruck things like "You're beautiful," "It's like the ocean in here," and "I hear you." Afterward, as he reflects in voice-over, he says, "You feel the power and the strength, but you also feel the tenderness." If asked to reflect on its own encounter with this man, you suspect the elephant might say something similar.

The next man, looking somewhat beaten down, approaches tentatively. His hands flap nervously, and he taps tremulously at the elephant, as if half-expecting to touch shards of glass. You feel for him. He is, like the previous man, overwhelmed - but not in a positive way.

After comparing the elephant's skin rather beautifully to "curtains in a mansion," he confesses later that he hadn't been able to tell how wide or tall it was, or in which direction it pointed. Indeed, his main fear was that it would "do some wild things, walk over me or something crazy like that." Who can blame him?