The aesthetics and politics of representation

Print edition : September 19, 2014

Darpan, 15, from Gujarat. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Anant, 16, from Odisha. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Sai Krishna, 12, from Tamil Nadu. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Charudatt (right). Photo: By Special Arrangement

Ian McDonald, director of the documentary "Algorithms" about a group of teenaged blind chess players (above) and Charudatt, their mentor-promoter, who is himself blind.

“ARE some things unrepresentable?” is the questioning heading of the fifth and last chapter of the slim but profound book The Future of the Image (Verso, 2007) by Jacques Ranciere. Some things certainly are as we know from our own traumatic exposure to the here and now. Like the grisly beheading of the American freelance journalist James Foley—or like that of Daniel Pearl, the reporter of The Wall Street Journal, before him in Pakistan in 2002. Like the other cruelties of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), including the reported burying alive of ethnic Yazidis. Like the indiscriminate bombing of civilians, particularly children, in Gaza by Israel. Like the daily dose of slaughter, torture and rape that the news media purvey. These are too raw and searingly current to be artistically mediated, yet. They would belong, in Ranciere’s scheme, to the category of “naked” images which do not constitute art. But they do, and they will, eventually become grist for art—as “ostensive” images that impact by their sheer presence but without any role of signification, or abstracted as “metaphorical” images.

Ranciere does not raise his rhetorical question only or primarily in terms of such representation violating the genteel sensibility of the image-consuming middle class. He is aware that the question covers the gamut from the religious ban on representation (of graven images), through the challenge of pure artistic representation like Kazimir Malevich’s “White Square on White Background”, through the problematic of performing Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex mainly because of the messy matter of Oedipus’ gouged-out eyes, to the Holocaust which was an exercise as meticulous as it was criminal of double erasure—that of the genocide of about 11 million people, including six million Jews, and that of the massive operation to obliterate the evidence of this mammoth obliteration.

What he means is, “first, that it is impossible to make the essential character of the thing in question present. It cannot be brought before our eyes; nor can a representative commensurate with it be found. A form of material presentation that is adequate to its idea; or, conversely, a scheme of intelligibility equal to its material power—these are not to be found. This… thus posits an incapacity on the part of art.” When art, nevertheless, attempts such representation, it could end up detracting and subtracting from the gravity of the original moment. Its vicariousness spells its doom. So Prakash Jha’s film Gangaajal (2003) does not, although it draws on it for its title and ostensive image, artistically replicate or capture the Bhagalpur atrocity of 1980 when the police blinded 31 undertrials by pouring acid into their eyes; the film is in fact perversely ambivalent about this gruesome police crime.

Political expediency dictates and subverts representation, as we have come to learn only too well from the collusion of silence or understatement on, or sanitised and disinformational accounts and artistic re-renderings of, the nearly 250,000 people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who were put to such miserable deaths by incineration when the United States dropped atomic bombs on these two cities, and that after the war was practically over and won by the Allies; of anywhere between twice and five times that number of people—children, women and men who can be called, if that is any comfort, “collateral victims”—killed in the war against Iraq between 2003 and 2011, which often, weirdly, resembled a video game-like aerial bombardment of that country, enabling refined Western sensibilities to be clinically distanced and emotionally detached from the blood and the gore and the havoc on the ground. In the politics and the dominant narrative of representation, these hundreds of thousands of innocent lives snuffed out in Iraq, Afghanistan and Gaza are a collectivised and anonymised approximation. Their individual identities belong to the private memory of their surviving kith and kin, whereas each and every soldier of the U.S. or a Western power or Israel killed by enemy action or “friendly fire”, or the precise number of the 2,977, no doubt equally innocent, victims of what is now millennially referred to as 9/11, has a name and a face and a home and a family which humanises and redeems them as more valuable lives in the public eye.

Then there is art ab initio that summons up or deploys imagery outside of reality, which is autonomous rather than representing, but which can be as devastative, shocking and inflicting—like the surreal image of an eye with lids open being slashed horizontally across with a blade in the short film Un Chien Andalou (1929) created jointly by Louis Bunuel and Salvador Dali; or the traumatic self-reflexivity enforced on the central character and gang leader, Alex, of the diabolic youth squad in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), when he is strapped to a chair and his eyes are forcibly kept open with pincers to watch scene after unremitting scene of violence on video so that he is gazing and screaming helplessly. There is, too, the hyperreal which by ritualising cruelty approximates to art in a strange way. The ritual self-disembowelling, or seppuku, and beheading of the brilliantly eccentric Japanese author, actor and director Yukio Mishima was a spectacle at the intersection of the act and the actual, which in its own way defies representation although his own short film Yukoku (Patriotism, 1966), in which he played the lead role, anticipated his stylised suicide.

Epidemic of blindness

A powerful evocation of blindness in malefic Hobbesian terms leading to a stupefying anarchy, rather than in the normative sympathetic terms of coping with, or sufferance of, sightlessness, is Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness (1999). The film based on the novel, directed by Fernando Meirelles, which inaugurated the Cannes Festival in 2008, had a mixed response at the box office, with organisations for and of the blind taking umbrage at what they considered a debility being depicted villainously. The film perhaps fell short of the novel as metaphoric representation of the id of blindness. An epidemic of blindness sweeps over and reorders, or “disorders”, a society where a new unruly hierarchy of the blind—the rougher and the tougher forcing their will on the meeker—emerges, and the values based on the sense of sight are upended. It is, at one level, an exploration of the brute logic of blindness.

A recent documentary creating ripples in the international festival circuit has a rare quality of artistic brinkmanship as it seeks to probe and represent the mental makeup and acumen along with the personal traits and individual contexts of a group of teenaged blind Indian chess players and their older mentor-promoter, himself blind, who come together in an ambitious bid to scale heights of accomplishment in the game that will, they hope, one day enable them to compete on a par with the masters in the field gifted with sight. Blindness, here, is not treated as a handicap. It becomes uniquely constitutive of their skill. Four Moves In, We Are All Blind states the indicative subtitle of the film Algorithms, directed and shot and co-edited by Ian McDonald, a sport sociologist and documentarian who is now developing a new centre for film practice at Newcastle University.

That a film having to do with the blind would be in black and white may be obvious enough, but the film-maker invests the work with a chromatic range from grey to black which ineffably nuances colourlessness and darkness and draws us into a strange realm of the imaginary beyond the image. There are several piquant moments as the game of the blind pitted against the blind gains aggressive momentum or tensely winds down into checkmate, draw or defeat when it would seem that despite the extreme close-ups of the taut face, the flickering eyelids, the groping fingers feeling and moving the pieces on the board with nervous energy the camera cannot really get close enough to reveal more. It comes up, again and again, against a frustrating inscrutability. The sighted observer as much as the camera eye must, it would seem, remain the uninitiated outsider. Blindness remains beyond our grasp; we may empathise and sympathise with it but cannot hope to fully get into it. The repeated attempts by Ian McDonald’s camera to pierce that veil of inaccessibility are futile. But it is the attempt that makes the film. It is the futileness that provides its artistic ellipsis.

The vignettes of the lives of the three blind boys and their senior guide the film weaves in and out of, when it is not capturing a championship contest featuring them in India or Sweden or Serbia or Greece, are compelling in their ordinariness. As the filming takes place over three years (2009 to 2012), it helps establish a sense of close familiarity with the main characters even in the space of the 100 minutes edited from 250 hours of footage garnered. It is as if by the end of the film we have known all of them for some time. Twelve-year-old Sai Krishna from Chennai is, much to his mother’s concern, in denial of his congenital blindness. Normally exuberant and confident, especially when he wins a game, he turns utterly despondent when he loses. But then, again, he is brimming with his self-psyching prescriptions (his strength is he will not yield to pressure, will not be tensed, will go for the win), and his young philosophy of life (not to think about the future since it is not in your hand—“it’s like fear of the devil”—so just think of the present and play well).

Fifteen–year-old Darpan from Baroda comes from a more affluent family. He lost his sight to a rare disease when he was three and a half years old. His pushy but well-meaning mother eggs him on in his chess. He likes to be complimented on his fastidious dressing and is generally in good cheer. “What a match!” he exults after a gruelling game has gone his way in the World Senior Blind Chess Championship in Serbia in 2010. We see him, shortly after, engaged in a kerbside conversation with another competitor about the unfairness of allowing the partially blind to compete with the totally blind. Sixteen-year-old Anant, who comes from a poor agricultural family in Odisha, has tremendous promise but not the necessary practice, partly because—and this is the despair of his coach—there is not enough encouragement at home.

Anchoring this initiative to launch these bright young minds into the big league competition is the middle-aged and generally mild-manned Charudatt, who himself became blind when he was 13, was national champion many times and captained the Indian team for blind chess until he decided to devote himself to identifying and fostering new talent. He guides the young players in their game, coaxing them to perform better and better, providing them tips to hone their skills, always ready with encouragement and consolation as the situation demands. There are poignant spontaneous moments when his well-persevered equanimity collapses and when, faced with frustration of his hopes, he gives vent to his sense of helplessness. As we move on from the three young boys and their fluctuating fortunes into the hunt for a fresh crop of blind boys and girls adept at the game from among a big number of contenders gathered in a pandal in Mumbai, the sense we are left with is of constant renewal with new beginnings.

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