Eye Candy (45)

By: Peggy Nelson
March 30, 2021

That we live in the Upside Down is now perfectly apparent to all. But like the upside-down glasses from psychology experiments, our minds have adjusted and now we see all the craziness as if it were normal. Eye Candy is no exception.

Stronger perceptual interventions are required here, if we are not to become easy prey for the overlords of the underearth. Vijay Balakrishnan, writer, artist, and former Artist-in-Residence here at HILOBROW, is pursuing such a front-line epistemological action, by the deceptively simple act of posting one picture a day for a year of puddles of Manhattan (@puddlesofmanhattan on Instagram), whose pandemically-emptied out streets he walks every day.

Deceptive, that is, because like all truly simple actions, a closer look reveals multitudes. A puddle doesn’t rise to the level of our attention unless it is deep. Here depth is in the reflection – Balakrishnan captures, rather than frames, the reflections, allowing the “happy accident” to inform his already discriminating eye. Although…perhaps captures is not quite the right verb. There is a co-creation that happens in all our interactions with our environment, an environment in which we are embedded; an environment as dynamic as we are.

Vijay Balakrishnan: There must have been a first time, looking down into a puddle and seeing the world around me reflected. The town I grew up in was a hill-station in South India called Ootacamund, eight thousand two hundred feet above sea level, misty and rainy much of the year, full of potholes and fields and puddles. I do have vivid memories of jumping and splashing in muddy puddles in my gumboots (as we called them), exuberant and full of mischief, but I have no defining moment when I first spotted the sky or a cloud in a hole in the ground.

Over the years, I do remember occasionally being surprised and dazzled by a puddle, where the angle is perfect and some image, a bridge or a tree or the grid of a skyscraper is lit up and alive on the street. But I didn’t go looking for puddles; they came to me I thought when I needed to see them. Then about a decade ago, I got a digital camera and started taking many kinds of pictures in NYC, including puddles. It became a practice in itself, refining spatial awareness, 360 degrees, and of developing a special sensitivity to light, vectors, and angles. Looking down to see up. All kinds of things. I stayed with it for a couple of years, thought I’d learned what there was to learn, and moved on to other kinds of work and/or play. I thought I was done with puddles.

Until the pandemic hit. In the early dark days I stayed cocooned at my sweetheart’s place in the East Village, only going out for groceries that were then wiped down with alcohol. Slowly, as the weather warmed, and we knew slightly more about the risk of infection outdoors, I started to take longer walks to my studio in East Harlem, and to see my mother on the Upper West Side. I covered huge swaths of the island just going about my normal business. The walks helped steady my nerves in midst of the chaos, the pandemic, the looming elections, the psychopathic con-man creating as much insanity as possible. I walked and saw my beloved city boarded up, abandoned and wounded, the homeless seeming even more desperate in a ghost town. The pathos was deep.

And one day, going up Third Avenue, a puddle lit up for me. It was small but just managed to perfectly capture a new skinny skyscraper under construction. The orange tarp covering the concrete of the building caught the sun’s light and it glowed as if a flare were burning. It was truly delightful, and it felt like a hello from my friend the puddle god, and an invitation to again begin our conversation. I took a photo of that puddle, but didn’t post it anywhere (as I have done in the past). I waited, and slowly over weeks I noticed and photographed a few more puddles, knowing there was a definite commitment to the puddles I had yet to make. For the puddle god to reveal the deeper puddle meanings, I would first have to make an offering.

So, as that wretched year 2020 came to a close, I made a vow to honor the
@puddlesofmanhattan on Instagram, starting on the first of January 2021, every day, for the year. The practice of puddle hunting has intensified my focus and my instincts far beyond my early dalliances. I’m sure it will take time to assimilate all that I am being shown. For everything I am grateful. – Vijay Balakrishnan, 2021

Balakrishnan’s sampling offers not portals away from the Upside Down to the Rightside-Up as initially imagined, but actually something better: new entities with which the savvy, the interested, the delighted, and even the “happens-upon”, can construct a more viable reality from the Escheresque perceptival paradoxes that the pandemic (and all the rest of it) has exposed as the real nature of our experience.


Puddles of Manhattan on Instagram: @puddlesofmanhattan
Vijay Balakrishnan Artist-in-Residence on HILOBROW
Causal Body on Instagram: @causal_body
Peace Inc.: novel, HILOBROW review
Paris Review: photos and writing
The inverted-glasses experiment: i09, George Stratton