I finally made it to the Whitney Biennial this past weekend while my sister was visiting. I had gone to the last one two years ago with friends Zach and Heather, both of whom 'get this stuff' better than I do. Being an Illustrator, I generally gravitate toward the realist painters, rarely leaning toward the extremely abstract. But I try. I like knowing what is out there, what's being done. It helps to have someone along who can explain the more confounding (to me) works of art in a contemporary art show like the Biennial. For example, why is that ginormous foam boulder with wax and resin dripped all over it something that I should look at? - A guard had to explain to me that the artist, Jedediah Caesar, wanted to bring an actual boulder of some sort into the museum, but it was going to be too heavy, so he created one, and the dripping of the wax and resin create an eroded effect - Thanks man!
The last time I visited this show my friends and a professor were my guides. This time I had to be the guide!! I did my best to understand and appreciate the work, and of course some were easier to get than others, but the ones that struck me most were all videos. Something about that medium just sucks you right in. One in particular has stuck with me, and I've thought about it many times over the last few days - a video by Javier Tellez titled "Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See". Shot in black and white, and set in the basin of a huge, old, empty swimming pool in Brooklyn, the film documents six blind people as one at a time they come face to face with an elephant for the first time in their lives. They tap their way across the concrete, sensing where the elephant is, reaching out tentatively at first, and then exploring the elephant with their hands, coming to an understanding of what the size, shape, and texture of an elephant really is. Watching each of them come to this giant animal, watching them investigate with such a gentle touch and intense concentration, and realizing that until this point they have not had a true sense of what an elephant looks like, was just incredibly moving to me. It may be obvious - of course a blind person wouldn't really know what an elephant looks like - but to me it came as a surprise. And then I was surprised at my own surprise! But then to see their reaction to meeting this creature, and to see the way they 'see' with their other senses, was just fascinating! I tried to put myself in their place. What if I could only explore the world with my ears, nose, taste and touch? What if the only way for me to really understand the massive size and ragged texture of an elephant was to meet one face to face? No photos would have aided me in my knowledge, only descriptions, and maybe an inaccurate plastic or stuffed toy. What would that be like? It's hard to imagine, but it made me think about the senses, and how we navigate the world.
I am glad we visited the Biennial this year - it won't be back for another two years, and if I'm able to go again, I surely will.
Later that day, my sister and I walked over the Williamsburg Bridge on a whim, but that's another story.