Hands-on 'Experiments'

Javier Téllez's 'Letter on the Blind' leads a parade of video art at the ICA

Javier Téllez's ''Letter on the Blind, for the Use of Those Who See'' enacts the Indian parable about the blind men and the elephant. Javier Téllez's ''Letter on the Blind, for the Use of Those Who See'' enacts the Indian parable about the blind men and the elephant. (Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / March 27, 2009
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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?

There are some other fascinating films in the show, which was put together by ICA associate curator Jen Mergel. In each case, non-actors have willingly entered into a situation with unforeseen outcomes, and the artist frames and edits what comes to pass.

In one scenario, filmed in Scotland by Phil Collins (no, not that Phil Collins), cash is offered to the person who can laugh the longest. The winner, a young girl, keeps it up for almost two hours, as one by one the contestants around her throw in the towel. The forced hilarity and the sheer physical strain of faking emotion make it exhausting to watch.

Should we take Collins's film as a poignant reflection on the evacuation of people's inner lives in a society perverted by reality TV, as we are encouraged to do? Perhaps. But people have always done crazy things for cash. I thought of the dance marathons held during the Great Depression, when impoverished young couples competed for prize money by dancing for sometimes as long as six weeks without sleeping, "more clinging than moving," as Gertrude Stein put it.

One of the more curious films, "Wild Seeds," is by Yael Bartana, and it shows a group of Israeli teenagers acting out the conflicting roles of settlers and police on a picturesque hilltop in the occupied territories. One group, "the settlers," tries to resist as "the police" force them apart, one by one, and remove them.

The film - which records nothing more than play-acting (although the context is obviously charged) - is a study in perspective. The hand-held camera darts about in the melee, frequently losing focus and only occasionally panning back to give us a wider view of what is going on. We hear only muffled yells, but subtitles on another screen show us what they are saying: "Join the refuseniks, you fascist!," "Ow, you're hurting my arm!," "Burn, you bastard," "A Jew does not deport another Jew," "I can't breathe," and "My glasses!"

The whole thing is silly, but it teeters on the edge of something spooky. It's hard to look away.

The two other films, by Johanna Billing and Artur Zmijewski, are a little less convincing. Billing's "Magical World" presents Croatian children in Zagreb rehearsing the haunting American pop song of the same name. The footage of the rehearsal is interspersed with random shots of everyday life in Zagreb, and the whole thing is intended as a poetic meditation on Croatia's recent efforts to adopt Western ideals. The lyrics - "Why do you want to wake me from such a beautiful dream? Can't you see that I'm sleeping?" - ruffle the calm surface of the film with intimations of something more disquieting, but the film is neither concise nor eloquent enough to involve us.

Zmijewski's film is more confrontational. It shows edited footage of a workshop, organized by Zmijewski himself, in which Polish nationalists, conservative Catholics, Jewish activists, and social leftists were invited to make symbols of their own ideals and to desecrate the symbols of those groups whose views they rejected.

The results are not edifying. We see people who are old enough to know better slicing through slogan-carrying T-shirts with scissors, tossing placards out windows, setting fire to makeshift shrines, and generally hurling abuse at each other.

But of course, none of it feels real. It merely reminds us how histrionic humans can be, forever rehearsing emotions, so that, as Glenway Wescott wrote, "half our life is vague and stormy make-believe."

Animals are different, thank God. In fact, you can't imagine how pleased I was, when I had finished with Zmijewski's film, to go back to my friend the elephant, who was still standing there in abeyance, letting himself be petted by representatives of a very strange species indeed. I sat on the bench in front of him and closed my eyes.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at

ACTING OUT: Social Experiments in Video At: Institute of Contemporary Art, through Oct. 18.


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