The simple question of how blind people function in a world geared toward sight is the framework for Anna Gustafson’s intriguing new show called ‘White-transforming vision,’ which opened at the ArtCraft Showcase gallery on Friday.
As the first conceptional art installation to grace the ArtCraft stage, the White show underlines vision’s enduring dominance over the other senses — even when that dominance is being questioned. While as “viewers,” exhibition visitors may not have come any closer to understanding what it means to be blind, Gustafson’s austerely beautiful display offers entry into a fascinating discussion with many possible lines of inquiry.
The premise of the show was suggested to Gustafson through a quote from Helen Keller on women’s responsibility to vote. Realizing her knowledge of the deaf and blind woman had ended in childhood, the artist was amazed to discover Keller’s achievements, which included learning five languages and championing women’s, social and labour rights as well as rights for the blind. She was also the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, graduating from Radcliffe College in 1904.
With this inspirational personage as a guide, Gustafson started thinking about things like how a blind person would be able to identify items in a grocery store. The White exhibit turns the question back onto the visually intact, with shelves of tins and pyramids of products labelled entirely in white and stamped with braille.
Visitors to the show are offered a key to help translate the contents of the cans. Gustafson no doubt became very familiar with braille’s tactile language as she imprinted each symbol, but viewers are still dependent on sight to read the raised bumps (each letter is made on a grid of six sections, with dots either punched in or not), moving from card to art item with the eye rather than the hand.
One of the successes of the show is that through the interactive elements, the regular viewer can admire both the idea and the aesthetic without feeling excluded by high concept. Gustafson explained that she helped facilitate this by hand-marking the braille, which supplied a feeling of “looseness” to the design without being sloppy or ugly. For her the aesthetic is deeply tied to the concept, and is undeniably based on the sense of sight.
“I want people to look at the art and the only way I know how to do that is make it visually intriguing,” Gustafson said.
A series of works on paper that fill one wall of the stage further emphasizes the conundrum of challenging visual norms within the context of visual art. The sketches of soup cans, each punched with its flavour in braille, are an obvious nod to Andy Warhol’s iconic pop art.
But while Warhol’s work served to upend art pretensions by placing it securely in the consumerist realm, Gustafson’s takes it back again. Without brand name recognition or graphic imprints, the soup inside the cans is reduced to its basic stuff. Likewise, in Gustafson’s drawings the removal of those visuals means the graphic elements of the cans’ basic shape becomes the main focus. The wall of empty outlines also serves as a reminder of the emptiness of consumerism’s flashy and ultimately false promises — leaving the blind perhaps better equipped to see through to life’s more important issues.
Gustafson has said that the concept is the most important part of her work, and other artists in the crowd Friday night were certainly appreciative of her work in this area. J.D. Evans observed it was clear how much thought went into the show before Gustafson created it, with excellent results.
“Having something like this is a terrific change — it’s a different level,” added Gary Cherneff.
“It’s really great that art can take on this form on this island and allow people to talk and feel and think. And I love that.”