Javier Téllez @ Whitney Biennial


I finally made it to see the Whitney Biennial this weekend and am SO glad that I did. I won’t try to give a synopsis of the show because I don’t want to and I can’t. Once I saw Javier Téllez’s Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See, 2007, video, my brain wouldn’t allow me to think about anything else.

The video is based on the Indian parable, “The Blind Men and the Elephant” and documents the experiences of six blind New Yorkers who approach and touch an elephant in the empty space at McCarren Park Pool, Brooklyn.

Tellez video black and white still

Experiences vary between participants but the encounter is tightly framed, often including only the participant’s hand and the elephant, so the viewer is brought as close as possible to the intimate exchange. The footage of each experience ends with a tonally lush still* of the elephant’s skin and audio from the participant. One older man says that he would not like his sight back at this point in his life; it would require learning a whole new way of living, not something he could/would do at this stage in life. Another reminds us that even if we walked around for a week with a blindfold on, we would still not know what it is like to be blind as we would be secure in the knowledge that the blindfold could be removed. In the context of these comments, the black and white still image serves as a beautiful but impenetrable wall between those who see and those who can’t.

Tellez color still


While most production stills I found online were in color, the actual video, in entirety is converted to black and white. Seeing the production stills confirmed my initial idea that grayscale made the video, moving and still images, more seductive, more beautiful, and more ethereal, exaggerating the viewing experience, in particular the experience of light and dark. The color images feel cold and detached (neither of the images I’ve provided here do the film justice, just go see it). But black and white is, obviously, not the way (most of us) see, we are provided this enhanced image to remind us of how fortunate we are to experience lightness and darkness. It is also possible that Téllez made this decision to give us as close to the same remarkable experience the blind participants had in the making of the film. If so, then the way our own vision functions (in color) falls short of the richer experience had by those who can’t see. Which is it? Regardless, the film is one of the most compassionate, thoughtful, and evocative things I have seen all year.

* I’m not sure/don’t remember if the image was actually a still, there may have been some movement. Either way, it was a close-up of the elephant’s skin and resembled a rock wall.


2 Responses to “Javier Téllez @ Whitney Biennial”

  1. 1 beth

    How does one find out where this video is showing? I’d love to see it. Reminds me of a children’s book, Seven Blind Mice.

  2. 2 saradistin

    I wish I knew! As far as I can tell, it won’t be showing anywhere soon but I’ll be on the lookout for it…

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