A Blind Ambition to See Works of Art
"It tastes more like a caramel than a candy," says a middle-aged man after sampling one of a bunch of shiny, burgundy-colored sweets from a small plastic cylinder. On the cover of the container is a label, which at first seems to be a manufacturing label. But it says in Korean, "Eating Memory 2001 by Jo Sung-hee." Made for one of the artworks in the exhibition "( ) Viewing," an art show for the blind and visually impaired, the candies are shaped like miniature human brains.
"It's a picture with a bunch of fragile lines in it," the same man yells with eyes wide open but unfocused. His eyebrows rise, as if seeking attention, his upper body tilts forward as a sign of pleasant expectation. His companions from the Korean Association for the Blind fumble for the other candies on the table. Soon, the room is filled with the clicking sounds of tongues and teeth testing the hard candies.
"I'll just say it's very sweet and curved," another man from the group says shyly to his assistant beside him, as the show's curator hands out origami papers and pens and asks the candy samplers to write down their experiences.
How can you appreciate visual art when you can't even see the works? What does it mean to take a photograph of a subject when you don't even know what it is? The exhibition "( ) Viewing," currently on display at the Seoul National School for the Blind in central Seoul, explores these and other intriguing questions.
The show has brought together 49 artists from the "Artists Collective Searching for Alternative Spaces," the same group that held an exhibition at the NamSeoul Cemetery House last year during the group's "Graveyard Project."
The organizers of the exhibition for the blind put it together mainly for the students at the school who have either forgotten about or never realized the concept of visual forms. The artists use the four other senses － sound, scent, touch and taste to examine alternative possibilities of appreciating art, "alternative" senses to the nonblinds but essential for the blind.
In one collaborative project, the photographers Bang Byong-sang and Lee Tae-sung used a series of Polaroid prints to document the students' journeys from their homes to the school. They mapped out the various obstacles the kids face on that commute everyday. The installation includes photographs of doughnut shops, bus stops on the main streets and record stores, or other places that the kids use to determine their location through smells and sounds. Some of the photographs were taken by the blind students themselves and are displayed on the gallery wall along with detailed descriptions of the images in Braille.
An artist with a fashion coordinator background, Kang Seung-hee, made tailored clothes for 10 students after asking each of them what their dream outfits would be, based on their favorite fabrics and styles. The final products, which will be given after the show to the students who participated, range from a pink velvet dress with a white collar to skirts made of bubble pack. They are installed in the school hallway for blind visitors to touch, along with large photographs of the students posing in the costumes.
Outside of the main building there is an exhibition of live animals, which will also be left for the school after the exhibition. A mixed-media artist, Kim Ki-ra, created a small zoo within the school's playground and brought rabbits, ducks and chickens for students to play with during their lunch breaks.
But the exhibit that has attracted more students during the lunch breaks and after school is the "Sound Puzzle" by Lee Jong-seok. The puzzle challenges users to form a complete phrase by pushing in correct sequences five different buttons, each of which stands for a few words. The game is considered an uplifting and edifying experience for the students, because many of the phrases are maxims by people who overcame handicaps, such as the physicist Stephen Hawking. Other statements include proverbs such as "The world is beautiful because of its many different kinds of people" or "Use the best you've got, whatever it is you have."
"I am both delighted and disappointed about this separate exhibition organized for the blind," said Moon Jeong-ho, the school's art teacher who co-organized the show. "I've had parents come up to me in tears about their experiences of visiting a public gallery with their blind children and being yelled at by museum attendants after their kids attempt to touch or smell the artwork."
Indeed, an art show encouraging visitors to use senses other than sight is a rare event. According to Mr. Mun, blind students' perceptions of artworks are usually limited to what they know of the artist and words that others use to describe them.
Finding My Way in a Dark World
The road is rough and bumpy. The major construction project on the small road leading to the National School for the Blind in Hyoja-dong may be trying for local store owners who have lost parking spaces. But for the students of the school who have to cover the 15-minute walk from Kyongbok Subway Station, the experience of navigating a broken-up footpath while being barraged by the grinding noises of big forklifts just steps away can engender tremendous fear, I assume.
I am walking on the same street with my eyes closed, trying to imagine the situation - but I know it's not the same.
Moon Jeong-ho, the enthusiastic art teacher at the school, said that many of the kids who have been blind since birth can't see visual images even when they are dreaming. But after taking his art classes, Mr. Moon said, some kids told him that they saw rabbits and apples in their dreams. He guesses though that the kids are getting confused between the ideas of seeing and imagining. People who are naturally blind from birth do not have the concept of visual forms, according to medical specialists. Instead, they imagine and assume things. And often their predictions turn out to be uncannily accurate.
Up at the school's fourth-floor auditorium, the kids were playing games that highlighted their specialized skills. In one, the player who correctly named who the person coming up the stairs won some candy. The kids could often identify the person by the sound of their footsteps.
I played the "Sound Puzzle," with my eyes closed. There were five word buttons on the machine; the player had to push buttons in the correct sequence to make a complete phrase. I cheated before the game began by memorizing the locations of all the buttons, which were arranged to form a pentagon. Even then, it was impossible for me to determine my sense of direction on the keyboard, and I stumbled along the corners of the machine. My inferior memory was to blame. Mr. Moon said it's natural for people with normal vision to fall behind the blind in memory ability. We are not trained to fully develop our nonsight senses, because sight dominates our daily activities.
It was relieving to see the kids who were fully enjoying the life they were given. They were curious about seeing, but not desperate. They were like any other kids at that age wondering about flying, who soon recognize their difference from pigeons.
by Park Soo-mee