Musings on Blindness, Elephants and Art

  • Photo by Illustration by Saena Chung for Seoulist

    Illustration by Saena Chung for Seoulist

Imagine a small girl carrying a naked mannequin across the school yard. 

Lugging the enormous figure, which will form part of her newest sculpture, she passes by the boys’ football team. The boys laugh and point fingers at her while the gym teacher makes a puzzled comment under his breath. The girl hardly seems to care—this is a girl madly in love with art, a passion that’s helped her overcome a crippling shyness. Up, up several flights of stairs she goes, focused only on taking the big creature somewhere. She finally stops at the top floor of the school where she disappears.

Fast forward nearly a decade later, to chilly April of this year. I was no longer a small girl, but a grown woman standing in a fancy, black-and-white-bedecked space. Somewhere, loud music was playing in celebration of the art gallery opening. I moved away from the music and walked into a long maze of artwork. 

The question of what makes art good is something I always wonder about during these events. Despite much consideration, I find that my tastes are still like a four-year-old child’s. I am fond of pretty colors, scared of weirdness and quickly attracted to works that are easy to understand. Perhaps it was because of these unrefined tastes that I whizzed past the abstract sculptures, gray paintings and Japanese creatures in eye-hurting neon colors. I soon arrived at the end of the exhibit to wait for my companions.

Bored, my eyes traveled to a small booth nearby. Scribbles made with crayons and a series of half-formed clay sculptures filled the little display. Upon reading the sign, I realized that they had been made by children who were blind.

The word “blind” shot through my mind. How could a blind person create or understand art?

Just as I was about to move away, a man (whose name I never caught but whose fashionable glasses I remember!) approached me. He told me that the clay sculptures were actually elephants created in a program called “Blind Touching Elephant.” The program invited blind children to touch elephants in a zoo and gave them the opportunity to re-create their perception of the elephant with artist volunteers.

Plucked from a well-known Buddhist fable, the unique name of the program refers to a king who invited six blind men to touch an elephant and guess what they had been in contact with. The description is wide-ranging and inaccurate, from “a big tree” to “radish,” as the blind men could only describe the parts they had felt.

“The founder of this program used imagery from this fable to undermine the notion that the blind are biased and foolish,” the man explained.

Breaking into a smile, he added: “But in our program, the children are encouraged to express their experiences however they want!”

I also couldn’t help but smile at his last comment.

Continuing on, the man started a new story, “Just like any child, the blind also want to express themselves.” But I was no longer listening. Instead, I was thinking about the time when I carried the mannequin to the art room.

When I started middle school I was also beginning life in a new country. Because I did not know English, I became terrified of speaking. The language barrier worsened my already shy personality, to the point of being rendered mute. For years, teachers told me to speak up in class, but I could not. That is, until that day with the mannequin. In that moment I realized that creating art gave me a confidence that I didn’t have before. It was how I found myself and more importantly, how I found friends.

Staring again at the clay elephants, I began to appreciate them as an embodiment of life-giving joy.

At the back of the booth, the video from the zoo trip was playing. Eyes closed, the children felt the elephant for the first time with shaking hands, fingers traveling across the grand yet subdued creature. Excitement, apprehension and gasps spread across their faces. It was an incredible image, particularly because of the story behind it.

That night, I reached for the sketchbook I bought three years ago. There were small sketches here and there, but mostly blank sheets. For so long, I had neglected any sort of art with excuses of being busy. In doing so, I had forgotten about my love for art—the love that made me blind to the smirks of high school football players and strong in the face of culture and language barriers. Seeing the clay elephants was a fresh and welcome revelation, compelling me to re-experience the simple delight of creating art. Inspired by the sightless artists who reminded me of this joy, I sharpened a pencil and placed a vase of flowers in front of the sketchbook.

“Another way of Seeing” is the organization that provides art programs for the blind. ANS also has a gallery in Samcheong-dong. Find about more at their website (Korean).

Jay Chung

About Jay Chung

Jay Chung works for a PR agency in Seoul. After work, she enjoys reading in bed, figuring out obscure film cameras and getting a good glass of beer.

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