At its best, art is a visual conveyor of ideas and/0r emotions. It questions our perceptions and assumptions. It addresses the uncomfortable truths often underlying our collective knowledge. Most importantly, it does not allow our self-imposed blindness – upon which we build our indifference – to go unchallenged.
The complex, subtle/not so subtle layers of socio-political-psychological blindness and indifference that exist within our individual and collective psyche are examined in New Delhi-based G. R. Iranna’s installation, The Birth of Blindness. Life sized classically proportioned men crouch naked on trolleys similar to those used by handicapped street beggars. The ten figures look identical, their foreheads pressed against their trolleys, their faces concealed, their eyes blindfolded, their crouched trance-like positions similar to figures absorbed in prayer.
The metaphorical symbolism is obvious – nudity a signifier of vulnerability; the blindfold a signifier of blindness; the trolley a signifier of a handicap (in this case, both physical and spiritual); the sameness a signifier of conformity.
In a post 9/11 world of Guatanamo Bays and prisons like Tehran’s Evin Prison, it is difficult not to look at The Birth of Blindness without jumping to political conclusions. Similar to Iranna’s The Dead Smile, another life-sized installation of crouched nude men whose heads are covered with black cloths, Iranna’s figures appear to be waiting. In The Dead Smile, however, the “awaiting one’s fate” is more ominous – Waiting to be tortured? Waiting to be executed? – then it is in The Birth of Blindness.
As the title suggests, The Birth of Blindness alludes to the genesis of blindness – Where does blindness and indifference stem from? Who is the oppressor that demands we lose our individuality? Is it religion (no matter what faith)? Is it government? Is it ourselves? Iranna does not physically portray this oppressor and yet this oppressor is omnipresent. Whoever the oppressor is, one thing is clear – blindness, whether imposed or chosen, only leads to a crippling immobilization of our individual and collective growth.
Blind conformity and indifference are also addressed by the Bangalore-based artist, Krishnaraj Chonat, albeit through architectural forms. His sculptures are scaled down monuments that openly satirize India’s new class of nouveau riche.
Chonat mocks how the nouveau-riche follow each other into gated communities with names like Purva Venezia (Venice’s magical landscapes). Within these communities, ornate homes stand as ostentatious testaments to their dweller’s complete blindness – the blind need to follow and fit in; the blind mimicry of an architecture that is foreign to Indian history and culture; the blind indifference to the inherent poverty and under-development that plagues most of India.
Chonat’s The Coracle is a fibreglass sculpture of a fisherman’s boat on top of which stand two outrageous columns upon which is perched (rather precariously) an absurd concoction of gothic columns, lampshades, and Hindu dieties, each object as disconnected from the other as the boat is to its cargo. In an ironic twist, a mosquito lies ominously on the architectural contraption, a wry commentary on the mosquito-infested waters upon which Venice is founded.
Of course, blindness and its consequenes are not unique to India. The art of Iranna and Chonat remind us that every city has its Purva Venezia and that it’s the rare one amongst us who hasn’t, at one point or another, chosen to wear a blindfold.