If those of us fortunate enough to have “normal” vision were asked which sense we would least like to lose, many would agree on eyesight, feeling that the loss would leave one immensely incapacitated. The eyes are described as “the window to the soul,” by sources attributed to authors from Cicero to Shakespeare; veracity and truth are also associated with this sense more than with others. Consider how often we hear “I’ll believe it when I see it,” or “Seeing is believing.” In legal matters the evidence of an “eye witness” is paramount. Physiologically, despite being wrapped in an orb of bone, the eye remains delicate and vulnerable. In the visual arts, this susceptibility was iconically demonstrated by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí in their short film collaboration, Un Chien Andalou: its defining scene, in which Simone Mareuil has her eyelids held open while a razor slices across her eye, can still elicit audible gasps of horror from the uninitiated. Despite being produced in 1929, it tapped into the eye as an unparalleled locus of pain — physical as well as psychological — and its power remains unequalled by any Hollywood fakery since.
While it is almost impossible to imagine navigating our physical world (built by the sighted, of course) without vision, very significant progress has been made in recent years through assistive technology — computers speaking text for example, and ophthalmology, through micro technology, and microelectronics. The future now holds the real possibility of creating a digital stimulation of the eye with implants that yield an alternative new interpretation of “vision.”
What does this all mean for the status of the blind and visually impaired, when so much is presumed to be attached to the sense of sight? Do we truly understand their lives, and how do we address their needs? Have we listened to their experiences, heard their stories and appreciated the true value of this community, one that has so often been marginalized and misunderstood?
Annaluara Di Luggo, an artist based in Naples, elevates these concerns in Blind Vision, a remarkable and ground-breaking performative installation, curated by Raisa Clavijo. Her contribution investigates how deep misconceptions can run, when language and environment encourage the preconception that the blind and visually impaired community are somehow more limited than the rest of us.
The venue is the Paulo Colosimo Institute in Naples, Italy, which is dedicated to the education and inspiration of the blind and partially sighted community of Naples and the region. Visitors descend a sloping ramp to the basement and into total darkness. A glimmer of light from the entrance is just enough to illuminate the way into a large underground chamber. Enfolded in this void, visitors are gradually surrounded by an ethereal soundtrack, abruptly interrupted by a simultaneous clear conversational voice and a burst of light and color — a single enormous bright eye, illuminated on the ceiling. A young woman’s voice describes living in a world without sight, a heartfelt personal observation conveyed without self-consciousness or artifice. After a few sentences the eye disappears and another subject’s pairing of voice and eye engages us from a distant part of the chamber, followed by another and so on, each personal reflection accompanied by a luminous iris and pupil. Soon the ambient light reveals a barrel-vaulted chamber, the curved roof serving to make the eyes as if giant planets in a night sky — a blind universe, ironically dominated by these floating symbols of light and vision.
The words accompanying the array are poignant — “I wish I could see my mother’s face;” “I wanted to become a soccer player;” “ Why me?” “Just because I am blind, it doesn’t mean I am stupid” — especially when accompanied by eyes that look damaged or malformed.
Blind Vision is characterized by superb production values, with excellent audio quality (take an Italian translator with you) and purposefully built light boxes (a misnomer, as they are circular in form like the eyes they display) that carry the scintillating photographic color transparencies. These transparencies are taken from macro-photographic images made possible by Di Luggo’s use of a special lens adaptation for her camera, which she personally developed precisely for this project. The room itself is tightly lightfast, with not so much as a stray reflection to distract from the piece — these details count.
Two smaller adjacent spaces display work that supplements the installation. In the first, a pedestal supports a single large sculpture of an eye. Modeled by Di Luggo, the structure is designed to be a tactile representation of the eye that visitors can run their hands over to comprehend its form. It was, however, specifically developed to address the more highly tuned haptic sense of the Institute students and other visually impaired visitors. The tangled fibers of the iris are interpreted as radial raised ridges, the pupil as a recessed bowl, but it is missing the lens — as is the case with one of the subjects.
This piece is a crucial reminder of the didactic purpose behind Blind Vision. Not only do the blind and visually impaired make up for their loss of sight with a heightened sensitivity to the other senses, but there are closer relationships between these senses. Hearing, touch, taste, and smell become more interrelated and highly developed: one subject mentioned how she recognizes people by their smell.
The second room displays framed photographic documentation of the artist’s interaction with her subjects. She sits opposite to them, holding their hands and sometimes faces, the haptic again made a vital channel of communication. The careful use of lighting enhances the intimacy of these images, emphasizing the focus of physicality between Di Luggo and her students — one massages her, another dances with her, demonstrating their mutual trust.
Visitors were later able to view a remarkable short documentary that supports the comprehensive nature of the Blind Vision project in the beautiful theater within the Colosimo Institute. Directed by Nanni Zedda, it ties together the lives of the subjects in more detail and describes the process of the artist’s journey with them. The video fills in the attention to detail and the artist’s empathy for her subjects. It reminds us of the many hours of research, recording, analysis and dedication by the artist that enabled such validity and authenticity to shine and reflect’s Clavijo’s empathetic curation
Blind Vision is a unique and memorable presentation that would not be out of place in any major international gallery, yet it is also a profound sociological work about listening to different perspectives. Powerful and deeply engaging, the installation makes us reassess where the visual and haptic begin and end, a pilgrimage worth taking.
Blind Vision remains ongoing, by appointment only, at the Paolo Colosimo Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Naples, Italy.