Javier Téllez engages subject matter that often makes people uncomfortable. Delving into topics such as mental illness and institutional power, the artist critiques contemporary society by questioning passive or harmful notions of normalcy. Téllez’s film Letter on the Blind, For the Use of Those Who See takes its name from an essay by Diderot and is inspired by a famous Indian parable. In the parable, each in a group of blind men touches an elephant and each comes away with a different interpretation of the experience, revealing the fact that no single perspective can be the only truth. Much as the parable suggests, Téllez’s film seeks to give presence to an element of the population marginalized for their differences.
Letter on the Blind, For the Use of Those Who See (16 mm film transferred to HD video, 27:36 minutes looped) opens as six blind people enter the deserted and drained McCarren Park Pool in Brooklyn, New York. Once each is seated in a row of chairs, an elephant walks into the center of the vast concrete space. Next, one by one, each person stands and walks over to the elephant and touches it in the round. A voice-over plays as they take this brief journey. Through it, we learn a bit about each person’s background, their approach to blindness and their ‘tactile recognition’ experience from feeling the elephant. The film uses documentary methods such as narrative as it records the seemingly real event. Yet this sense of authenticity is false; the entire experience is just a fictional re-staging of an ancient parable. Each participant is blind, but is cast by Téllez to act out a role.
Letter on the Blind performs a difficult exercise in attempting to convey a non-visual reality through visual means. In response to this challenge, Téllez has composed a visually restrained film that gives studied emphasis to sound. The film has a slow, measured pace and is shot in black and white. The decision to forgo color consciously strips the viewer of an element of sight and heightens the awareness of the dichotomy between sight and blindness. Sound clues like urban background noise help describe the setting. The same series of notes from a woodwind instrument play to introduce action, such as when one of the subjects stands to walk toward the elephant. Finally, during the closing credits, each participant’s name is spoken as it appears on screen.
Film is a perfect vehicle for Letter on the Blind and Téllez capitalizes on its capabilities. Not only is film a universal and increasingly accessible contemporary technology, it can reflect reality through layers of sight and sound like no other medium. Time-based and experiential, film allows the viewer to tag along on sightless encounters. The camera shot, as much as the spoken word, introduces each person to the viewer. It is the camera that records each person’s eyes (or sunglasses) and carefully documents their movements and appearance. In some ways, the limited black-and-white scheme provides visual emphasis. It depicts the craggy maze of wrinkles and texture of the elephant’s skin in strong contrast. This central theme becomes a compelling nonobjective exercise in grisaille during close-up durational still shots paired with spoken narrative.
Téllez’s staged encounter does not re-conceive of blindness in the context of sight-driven society. Yet, he does reveal the humanity behind the condition. The visceral, emotive reactions from those touching the animal are particularly poignant and the viewer is made to almost feel a part of the experience. The elephant’s skin is described as feeling, among other things, like ‘a strange fabric’, ‘thick rubber’ and a ‘big plastic wall’. One person finds the experience decidedly unsettling. For another, the elephant is ‘nature'; touch connects him to her ‘beauty’, ‘power’ and ‘tenderness’. Through seemingly candid (although scripted) interaction, blindness is presented as an alternative way of experiencing the world. As one participant states, ‘the visual concept doesn’t exist’ for him. It’s ‘dead’ and he doesn’t wish to have it back.
Javier Téllez was born in Venezuela. He lives and works in New York.
Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See was commissioned by Creative Time and co-produced by the Peter Kichmann Gallery as part of Six Actions for New York City. It is on view in the Film and Video Gallery at Arthouse at the Jones Center in Austin, Texas through July 31st.