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Modern-day parable: Artist's film expands upon Indian tale about blind men who encounter an elephant

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

There's much to the back story of Javier Téllez's "Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See" now on exhibit at Arthouse.

But it's not necessary to know any of it to find Téllez's short black-and-white film a lovely, thoughtful consideration of difference and perception.

The Venezuelan-born, New York-based artist is the son of two psychiatrists and spent his childhood in close proximity to those suffering mental illness and with institutions, and systems, dedicated to serving them. Hence empathizing with the marginalization of the disabled has been at the fore of Téllez's multimedia body of work.

Furthermore, the artist's mother spent the last decade of her life suffering from blindness, and that intimacy with the experience of not being able to see, Téllez has said in interviews, had a profound impact.

With "Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See," Téllez taps into French Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot's celebrated essay of the same name, in which Diderot ponders the relationship between reason and knowledge acquired through the senses.

Téllez also mines an Indian parable, the Blind Men and the Elephant, in which a group of blind men all touch an elephant to find out what it is like only to realize that can't agree on a single description because each has touched only part of the elephant.

On elegant 16 mm black-and-white film, Téllez's own filmic parable, which premiered at the 2008 Whitney Biennial, offers a nuanced and more compassionate consideration of subjective perception.

Shot within the large empty pool in Brooklyn's scruffy, graffiti-filled McCarren Park, (the pool has been closed since 1984), Téllez's film focuses on six blind people as they touch a live elephant and describe what they feel or "see."

The five men and one woman have never touched an elephant before and Téllez has organized the experience with a neat but minimal choreographic rhythm. Indeed much about Téllez's 30-minute film has a formality to it that seems almost a touch old-fashioned.

The group sit in a row of chairs neatly arranged in the deserted pool and each takes a turn walking toward the elephant to a few moments to run their hands over it. As they do, they describe what they feel — and hear and smell.

One says that the elephant's skin feels like a car tire and that the animal stinks to high heaven. Another likens it to "a strange fabric." One man remarks on how he can feel the life pulsing through the elephant's rough hide. "Thank you," he says to the animal after he's finished running his hands from trunk to tail.

Téllez gives each subject an opportunity to comment on their individual experience with blindness, letting the camera focus close up on the elephant's hide, the craggy furrows lovingly detailed through the black-and-white lens.

Not surprisingly, each person's experience with blindness is unique.

And so Téllez gently, thoughtfully makes his point. He subtly employs a visual medium to explore nonvisual perception, and in so doing, challenges the sighted populations notion of what it means to see.; 445-3699

'Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See'

When: through July 31

Where: Arthouse, 700 Congress Ave.

Cost: Free