Fraught Ontologies of The Frame in B.W. Kilburn’s “Deaf, Dumb and Blind” by Carlos Kong

Benjamin West Kilburn’s “Deaf, Dumb and Blind” (1901), on view in the Johnson Museum of Art’s current exhibition, “Encountering the Floating World: Ukiyo-e and the West”, incites various discursive configurations of the frame, thematizing the entanglement of technologies of vision with notions of a geographical unconscious of eroticized orientalism made manifest in the mass-produced, idealized iconography of tourism and international exchange. The work’s installation in the Johnson Museum enables the viewer to experience its intended functionality as both a photographic portrait and an interactive object of cultural memorabilia. As the viewer looks at the albumen print of two identical side-by-side images through a stereoscope, each of the viewer’s eyes perceive the corresponding images to render the two into a single intelligible image, while the optical augmentation of the stereoscopic device magnifies the image and provides it with deceptive three-dimensionality. Thus, the literal stereoscopic framing of visual experience parallels the capture of Kilburn’s photographic lens, which functions to rhetoricize the Orient in an appropriated aesthetic of Japonisme, framed in contrasting subtexts of both imperialist ambition and anxiety regarding Japan’s modernization in the Meiji Restoration, ongoing at the time of the image’s creation. Additionally, the intended Western audience and mass dissemination of the constructed, stereotypical imaginary of Japan in stereoscopic views and travel postcards such as “Deaf, Dumb and Blind” are evidenced through the vast mechanical reproduction of Modernist print culture.

B.W. Kilburn’s stereoscopic view photograph depicts three young Japanese women, each enacting a gesture of deafness, dumbness, and blindness. The women sit in front of a studio backdrop that depicts an idealized, nondescript landscape, wear traditional kimonos, and have highly stylized hairdos that are adorned with flowers. The stereotypical dress and stark artifice that pervade the image serve as an exoticized visualization of the Orient in the decontextualized Western imagination, and thus elucidate its clear intent for Western reception as a idealized relic of tourism. The photograph is framed by text that reads, “Representing the Japanese God ‘Koshin,’ the deaf, the dumb and the blind, Japan”. While the image shares iconographic parallels with the Japanese folk faith of Koshin (derived from Chinese Taoism with Shinto and Buddhist influence) which popularly pictorializes three monkeys covering their eyes, ears, and mouth, the false reconstruction of Japanese religion and the equation of monkey to a disabled Japanese female serve as an eroticized, gendered degradation of ancient Japanese cultural tradition. Furthermore, the stereoscopic magnification and three-dimensional illusionism further posit the Japanese female as an exoticized spectacle to satisfy the Orientalizing desires of the Western gaze. Thus, this dynamic of an unconscious imperial visuality is both mediated by the stereoscope itself and re-performed each time a viewer experiences the fraught ontologies that frame the problematic iconography of Kilburn’s “Deaf, Dumb and Blind”.

By Carlos Kong, Class of 2015

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