četvrtak, 6. prosinca 2012.

Javier Téllez - Oedipus Marshall (2007)


Video, filmovi i instalacije: divlji zapad i grčka tragedija, ludilo i normalnost, stvarnost i san, mjesečarstvo i institucionalna moć, marginalizirano stanovništvo i maske no drame - šest slijepaca opisuje slona dr. Caligarija.

Photo Zoom

Oedipus Marshall

Aaron Sheley as Oedipus, 2007
Diptych, c-print on Alubond
Each 31 x 53.4 cm (12 1/4 x 21 inch), framed
Ed. of 5 (+ 1 AP)

For his video Oedipus Marshal (2006), a restaging of Sophoclesʼs Oedipus Rex as a Western saga, Javier Téllez worked with amateur actors from the Oasis Clubhouse, a psychatric facility in Grand Junction, Colorado. The lead actor, Aaron Sheley, also cowrote the script with Téllez. In this deliberately paced video, the protagonists wear masks from Japanese Noh theater, calling to mind questions of identity and self-representation.

International filmmaker Javier Tellez has gathered an unusual cast for a film showing Thursday night at the Avalon Theatre.
The son of psychiatrists, Tellez likes to use amateur actors and actresses with mental illnesses to show they’re not all that different from the rest of us.
Set in the historic ghost town of Ashcroft, 14 miles outside of Aspen, “Oedipus Marshall” is a Western based on Sophocles’ Greek tragedy “Oedipus Rex.” The film also incorporates Japanese theater techniques. The actors wear Japanese Noh-masks — 700-year-old wooden painted masks used in Asian theater.
“I think what the director is trying to say, is to concentrate on the message — not the messenger,” said Ken Strychalski, who attended the world premier of the film in Aspen. “The dialogue is so profound.” And the Aspen scenery is magnificent.
The film showed for eight weeks at the Aspen Art Museum, who funded the project.
The Venezuelan-born filmmaker has lived in New York City for the past 10 years, collaborating with consumers of mental health institutions around the world to create short stories depicting the plight of the mentally ill and their interaction with society.
Tellez believes that by working with those who have been pushed to society’s periphery — as is often the case with the mentally ill — he is able to “represent those who have been condemned to invisibility,” while preserving their human dignity.
Tellez came to Grand Junction’s Oasis Clubhouse — a voluntary, recovery-oriented program for people with mental illness issues — to recruit actors for the film. People who participate in Oasis Clubhouse are referred to as members — not clients or patients. The program prefers to focus on who people are — including their strengths, abilities and talents — rather than what they have.
One of the clubhouse members, Aaron Sheley, played the lead role of Oedipus in the movie and co-wrote the script. Sheley showed Tellez one of the scripts he had written over the years, and Tellez asked him to write a Western based on “Oedipus Rex.”
“That specific archetype is embedded in psychology. It’s one I knew well having taken psychology and film theory courses. I tried to adapt the script as close to Oedipus as I could while still keeping the colloquialisms of the old West,” Sheley said. Sheley, 26, is a graduate of the University of Southern California film school.
There are 14 Oasis Clubhouse members in the film. Amorita Randall plays one of the townspeople. She’s an Iraqi war veteran and a survivor of Hurricane Katrina. She has post traumatic stress syndrome.
The actors were transported to Aspen where they worked 14-hour days for two weeks putting together the film. Leaving Grand Junction and everything familiar for two weeks required courage.
“Their challenges were really great,” said Oasis Clubhouse director Alex Sherwood.
“I think it’s equivalent to climbing a 14er,” said Strychalski, who is vocational director of Colorado West Mental Health. “They dealt with rain, snow, sleet, heat and high-altitude sickness. They had physical challenges on top of the mental. It was a real self-affirming thing.”
Members of the clubhouse have problems ranging from extreme sports injuries, war injuries, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety disorders and post traumatic stress syndrome. Some people’s problems are cyclical.
The clubhouse is not a clinical facility.
“It’s a good drop-in place for people who just want to talk, check-in, are having trouble. The Clubhouse has shown to be a good portal,” Strychalski said. “Our job is to ask what we can do to help people in the community to stay well and stay out of crisis, i.e. hospitalization. We try and give our clients support before it escalates to hospitalization.”
The Clubhouse is open Monday-Friday, from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. The facility is funded by Colorado West Mental Health — a regional mental health center.
Sheley tries to stop by the Clubhouse once a week. He said he’s made friends there who will be friends for the rest of his life. “It’s a good place to go and meet people, to get out what’s bothering you, a place to let go of your baggage,” Sheley said.
With so much local interest in the film, Strychalski and Sherwood got permission from the Aspen Art Museum to bring the movie to Grand Junction. The film showing is a benefit for Colorado West Mental Health, in support of the Oasis Clubhouse, and Hilltop’s Life Adjustment Program for traumatically brain-injured adults.
“Oedipus Marshall” will appeal to film buffs, those who follow classical literature, and people who want to see a film made with local actors,” said Strychalski. “It’s an Indie film. I think it could end up at a film festival.”
Another motive in bringing the film to Grand Junction is to increase public awareness of mental illness.
“One in four people will be affected in their lifetime — either by being clinically depressed or so anxious as to start being dysfunctional. Some form of mental illness is the major cause of workplace illness,” Strychalski said.
There will be a reception at 7 p.m. before the showing of the 31-minute film. Following the film will be a panel discussion involving the actors and actresses. - Sharon Sullivan

Caligari and the Sleepwalker 

Caligari und der Schlafwandler (Caligari and the Sleepwalker), 2008

Super 16mm film transferred to high-definition video, black and white, 5.1 digital dolby surround, Duration 27' 07'', original version in German with English subtitles
Ed. of 6 (+ 2AP)

"Caligare and the Sleepwalker" was shown for the first time at „Rational/Irrational“ at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, curated by Valerie Smith, 2009. Inspired by Robert Wiene’s 1920 film classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Javier Téllez formed in collaboration with non-professional actors/patients a series of workshops at Vivantes Klinik in Berlin.
The setting for the film takes place in and outside of Erich Mendelsohn’s expressionist Einstein Tower in Potsdam, in the auditorium of Haus der Kulturen der Welt, and at the Klinik. The film opens with a line from Jean Genet’s play "The Blacks: A Clown Show", (Genet was himself inspired by Jean Rouch’s film Les Maîtres Fous), which picks up the ideas of a play within the play and of role reversals in order to question the psychiatric institution and ideas of normalcy and pathology. In the workshops the participants were asked to engage in the creation of fictional narratives based on the original 1920 film. The incorporation of the solar observatory of the Einstein Tower as the main element of the film reflects the multiple optical natures of the cinematic apparatus. Its expressionistic architecture serves as a reference to the original set design of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and helps to catalyze the patients' performances. Through an anthropological approach that merges documentary and fiction film style, performances are rooted in role-playing and improvisation. The film brings out ideas that circulate around concepts of the 'Doppelgänger', subjective perceptions of space, possession, otherness, and schizophrenia.
(based on a text by Valerie Smith, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin 2008)

 Javier Téllez’s Caligari and the Sleepwalker uses Robert Wiene’s classic silent movie as the basis for this video installation. This offered the possibility of an interesting take on the story of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; a film that has been interpreted as a commentary on the German people’s somnambulist response to the rise of the Nazis. The film does reverse that overly misanthropic view but only to replace it with a variant on Nietzschism, whereby it is the somnambulist, Cesare, who is presented as the saviour of mankind.

Set in an observatory cum asylum, the story of Caligari and the Sleepwalker is heavily loaded with clichés about extra-terrestrials (recalling Scott Derrickson’s classic film The Day the Earth Stood Still, though far less sophisticated) and crude anti-professionalism. The argument that runs throughout the film is one that has been the currency of the anti-psychiatry movement since the 1960s and can be found in the ideas of thinkers such as Michel Foucault or R.D. Laing. As a piece of cinema, Caligari and the Sleepwalker is quite interesting, but I feel it has little to offer as a work of art that has anything either original or meaningful to say.
Denis Joe
One of the first works you encounter is Javier Tellez’ film Caligari and the Sleepwalker, 2008. This beautiful, stylish, black and white video is based on Robert Weine’s famous expressionist film Kabinet des Dr Caligari, one of the first films to be recorded inside a real functioning asylum. Where Weine’s film used actors to play patients, Tellez turns this around by using psychiatric patients as actors. The result is a blurring of the boundaries between fiction and reality, the rational and madness. In the film’s opening sequence we see a lone figure delivering a piece to camera. The monologue contains the phrase “When my speech is over everything will be played out here”. This remark sets the pace for an exhibition that is encouraging us to ask questions and allow our thoughts to take shape and unfold outside of our typical systems of perception. - Amy Jones

Javier Téllez, The Elephant and the Blind Men [Nathon, Khaled, Denise, Steve, Chris and Brandt]


The Elephant and the Blind Men [Steve], 2008
C-print mounted on aluminium, framed
96 x 167 cm (37 3/4 x 65 3/4 inch), framed
Ed. of 5 (+ 2 AP)

This photograph is a portrait of one the respective encounters between the 6 blind persons and the elephant. Also the sculpture which is placed opposite refers to the parable, as Javier Téllez dwells on the different descriptions of the animal. One of them compares the skin with a warm car tyre, another one with a furry sofa cover and a third person with the thick skin of a lizard. According to these specifications, the artist creates an elephant which illustrates how the six blind persons perceive the animal.
The film, in which a woman and five men approach the animal one after another and comment on how they perceive the elephant by touching, smelling and hearing it, is shot in the documentary "cinema verité" style. Now and then, the camera shows close-ups of the elephant’s fissured skin, while the protagonists speak about aspects of their blindness off camera.

Javier Téllez: Letter on the Blind, For the Use of Those Who See

This work is inspired by the Hindu parable “The Blind Men and the Elephant”, which shows how reality is constructed from a clash of different perspectives. The story goes that six blind men all touch different parts of an elephant and then cannot agree on the description of the animal; each one has come away with a different idea, ranging from a tree trunk to a wall, a rope or a palm leaf, depending on whether the part they touched was the elephant’s leg, its side, tail or ear. Téllez’s film is undercut by a paradox: How can one address the experience of blindness through a visual medium? Made in collaboration with a group of blind men from Brooklyn who are brought into physical contact with an elephant for the first time, the piece is structured around the diversity of the participants’ opinions instead of the single voice of a narrator. By multiplying the voices and offsetting the weight of visuality in lieu of the sense of touch and voice, Téllez makes an exploration of subjectivity, a polyphonic guide helping us to contrast vision with other perceptual experiences.

Javier Téllez: Letter on the Blind, For the Use of Those Who See

Javier Téllez engages subject matter that often makes people uncomfortable.  Delving into topics such as mental illness and institutional power, the artist critiques contemporary society by questioning passive or harmful notions of normalcy.  Téllez’s film Letter on the Blind, For the Use of Those Who See takes its name from an essay by Diderot and is inspired by a famous Indian parable. In the parable, each in a group of blind men touches an elephant and each comes away with a different interpretation of the experience, revealing the fact that no single perspective can be the only truth.  Much as the parable suggests, Téllez’s film seeks to give presence to an element of the population marginalized for their differences.
Javier Téllez, still from Letter on the Blind, For the Use of Those Who See, 2008. Image courtesy Arthouse at the Jones Center and Peter Klichmann Gallery.
Letter on the Blind, For the Use of Those Who See (16 mm film transferred to HD video, 27:36 minutes looped) opens as six blind people enter the deserted and drained McCarren Park Pool in Brooklyn, New York.  Once each is seated in a row of chairs, an elephant walks into the center of the vast concrete space.  Next, one by one, each person stands and walks over to the elephant and touches it in the round.  A voice-over plays as they take this brief journey.  Through it, we learn a bit about each person’s background, their approach to blindness and their ‘tactile recognition’ experience from feeling the elephant.  The film uses documentary methods such as narrative as it records the seemingly real event.  Yet this sense of authenticity is false; the entire experience is just a fictional re-staging of an ancient parable.  Each participant is blind, but is cast by Téllez to act out a role.
Letter on the Blind performs a difficult exercise in attempting to convey a non-visual reality through visual means.   In response to this challenge, Téllez has composed a visually restrained film that gives studied emphasis to sound.  The film has a slow, measured pace and is shot in black and white.  The decision to forgo color consciously strips the viewer of an element of sight and heightens the awareness of the dichotomy between sight and blindness.  Sound clues like urban background noise help describe the setting.  The same series of notes from a woodwind instrument play to introduce action, such as when one of the subjects stands to walk toward the elephant.  Finally, during the closing credits, each participant’s name is spoken as it appears on screen.
Javier Téllez, still from Letter on the Blind, For the Use of Those Who See, 2008. Image courtesy Arthouse at the Jones Center and Peter Klichmann Gallery.
Film is a perfect vehicle for Letter on the Blind and Téllez capitalizes on its capabilities.   Not only is film a universal and increasingly accessible contemporary technology, it can reflect reality through layers of sight and sound like no other medium.  Time-based and experiential, film allows the viewer to tag along on sightless encounters.  The camera shot, as much as the spoken word, introduces each person to the viewer.  It is the camera that records each person’s eyes (or sunglasses) and carefully documents their movements and appearance.  In some ways, the limited black-and-white scheme provides visual emphasis.  It depicts the craggy maze of wrinkles and texture of the elephant’s skin in strong contrast.  This central theme becomes a compelling nonobjective exercise in grisaille during close-up durational still shots paired with spoken narrative.
Téllez’s staged encounter does not re-conceive of blindness in the context of sight-driven society.  Yet, he does reveal the humanity behind the condition.  The visceral, emotive reactions from those touching the animal are particularly poignant and the viewer is made to almost feel a part of the experience.  The elephant’s skin is described as feeling, among other things, like ‘a strange fabric’, ‘thick rubber’ and a ‘big plastic wall’.  One person finds the experience decidedly unsettling.  For another, the elephant is ‘nature’; touch connects him to her ‘beauty’, ‘power’ and ‘tenderness’.  Through seemingly candid (although scripted) interaction, blindness is presented as an alternative way of experiencing the world.  As one participant states, ‘the visual concept doesn’t exist’ for him.  It’s ‘dead’ and he doesn’t wish to have it back.
Javier Téllez, still from Letter on the Blind, For the Use of Those Who See, 2008. Image courtesy Arthouse at the Jones Center and Peter Klichmann Gallery. -

Hands-on 'Experiments'

Javier Téllez's 'Letter on the Blind' leads a parade of video art at the ICA

 Javier Téllez's ''Letter on the Blind, for the Use of Those Who See'' enacts the Indian parable about the blind men and the elephant.

I did not go to "Acting Out: Social Experiments in Video" at the Institute of Contemporary Art with high hopes. Years of experience have led me to approach earnestly titled group shows of video art with something less than hopping enthusiasm. Moreover, I do not, as a rule, like watching human beings used in experiments, social or otherwise; it feels like an imposition - on my time, and theirs.
But I suggest you see "Acting Out." It's pretty lean, pretty interesting, prettily installed, and worth the price of admission and the tax on your time for one work alone: a gorgeous, somber, and utterly engrossing 27-minute film by the New York-based Venezuelan Javier Téllez.
The film is called "Letter on the Blind, for the Use of Those Who See." The ponderous title matches the ponderousness of its star: a very docile elephant with exquisitely freckled ears. It stands, unmoving, in the center of a filled-in city swimming pool. One at a time, a series of blind people approach the beast, touch it for a minute or two, and move back to the bench they started out from. That person then reflects on the experience (this is heard in voice-over as the camera homes in on a patch of the elephant's darkly undulant skin) before the next person approaches at the signal of a whistle.
Téllez, who often works with mentally or physically challenged people, is improvising on a theme set out in an Indian parable known as "The Six Blind Men and the Elephant." Six wise but blind men approach an elephant and, each feeling a different part of its anatomy, come to different conclusions about what it is. The moral, presumably, is that one shouldn't leap to wrong-headed conclusions on the basis of scant evidence. But of course, like all the best parables, this one's flexible, and I don't think Téllez has anything particularly didactic in mind. Indeed, on the face of it, his film has all the hallmarks of an undergraduate psychology experiment: How do people react in unknown situations? With fear, or with openness and curiosity?
But what actually takes place in this series of extraordinary encounters between man and beast is so specific, so inimitable, so unpredictable, that it is impossible not to be moved.
One big man approaches confidently. With gliding, cherishing hands, he feels his way over the elephant's skin, finding its ears and face without strain, and whispering tender, awestruck things like "You're beautiful," "It's like the ocean in here," and "I hear you." Afterward, as he reflects in voice-over, he says, "You feel the power and the strength, but you also feel the tenderness." If asked to reflect on its own encounter with this man, you suspect the elephant might say something similar.
The next man, looking somewhat beaten down, approaches tentatively. His hands flap nervously, and he taps tremulously at the elephant, as if half-expecting to touch shards of glass. You feel for him. He is, like the previous man, overwhelmed - but not in a positive way.
After comparing the elephant's skin rather beautifully to "curtains in a mansion," he confesses later that he hadn't been able to tell how wide or tall it was, or in which direction it pointed. Indeed, his main fear was that it would "do some wild things, walk over me or something crazy like that." Who can blame him?
There are some other fascinating films in the show, which was put together by ICA associate curator Jen Mergel. In each case, non-actors have willingly entered into a situation with unforeseen outcomes, and the artist frames and edits what comes to pass.
In one scenario, filmed in Scotland by Phil Collins (no, not that Phil Collins), cash is offered to the person who can laugh the longest. The winner, a young girl, keeps it up for almost two hours, as one by one the contestants around her throw in the towel. The forced hilarity and the sheer physical strain of faking emotion make it exhausting to watch.
Should we take Collins's film as a poignant reflection on the evacuation of people's inner lives in a society perverted by reality TV, as we are encouraged to do? Perhaps. But people have always done crazy things for cash. I thought of the dance marathons held during the Great Depression, when impoverished young couples competed for prize money by dancing for sometimes as long as six weeks without sleeping, "more clinging than moving," as Gertrude Stein put it.
One of the more curious films, "Wild Seeds," is by Yael Bartana, and it shows a group of Israeli teenagers acting out the conflicting roles of settlers and police on a picturesque hilltop in the occupied territories. One group, "the settlers," tries to resist as "the police" force them apart, one by one, and remove them.
The film - which records nothing more than play-acting (although the context is obviously charged) - is a study in perspective. The hand-held camera darts about in the melee, frequently losing focus and only occasionally panning back to give us a wider view of what is going on. We hear only muffled yells, but subtitles on another screen show us what they are saying: "Join the refuseniks, you fascist!," "Ow, you're hurting my arm!," "Burn, you bastard," "A Jew does not deport another Jew," "I can't breathe," and "My glasses!"
The whole thing is silly, but it teeters on the edge of something spooky. It's hard to look away.
The two other films, by Johanna Billing and Artur Zmijewski, are a little less convincing. Billing's "Magical World" presents Croatian children in Zagreb rehearsing the haunting American pop song of the same name. The footage of the rehearsal is interspersed with random shots of everyday life in Zagreb, and the whole thing is intended as a poetic meditation on Croatia's recent efforts to adopt Western ideals. The lyrics - "Why do you want to wake me from such a beautiful dream? Can't you see that I'm sleeping?" - ruffle the calm surface of the film with intimations of something more disquieting, but the film is neither concise nor eloquent enough to involve us.
Zmijewski's film is more confrontational. It shows edited footage of a workshop, organized by Zmijewski himself, in which Polish nationalists, conservative Catholics, Jewish activists, and social leftists were invited to make symbols of their own ideals and to desecrate the symbols of those groups whose views they rejected.
The results are not edifying. We see people who are old enough to know better slicing through slogan-carrying T-shirts with scissors, tossing placards out windows, setting fire to makeshift shrines, and generally hurling abuse at each other.
But of course, none of it feels real. It merely reminds us how histrionic humans can be, forever rehearsing emotions, so that, as Glenway Wescott wrote, "half our life is vague and stormy make-believe."
Animals are different, thank God. In fact, you can't imagine how pleased I was, when I had finished with Zmijewski's film, to go back to my friend the elephant, who was still standing there in abeyance, letting himself be petted by representatives of a very strange species indeed. I sat on the bench in front of him and closed my eyes. - Sebastian Smee

Javier Téllez
Invisible populations; animals, sight, translation and interpretation

image A warm tyre, a vulture’s wing without feathers, a plastic wall, curtains from a mansion: these are descriptions offered by the subjects of Javier Téllez’ latest film, six blind people confronting a four-ton metaphor. Letter on the Blind, for the Use of Those Who See (2007) realizes the famous parable, documenting an encounter between a group of blind New Yorkers and an Indian elephant. Yet the work is not so much an allegory as a drama of local perceptions. The five men and one woman sit on chairs in the centre of an empty, derelict Brooklyn public swimming-pool and, one by one, come forward to meet the animal. They share on-the-spot impressions and, in a voice-over, offer commentary on their separate histories. The stately pace of the film, keyed to the participants’ careful movements, creates a heightened, ritual feel. Shot in intense, high-contrast black and white, almost entirely in close-up, the elephant becomes less a recognizable form than a tactile expanse, its craggy hide frequently filling the entire screen. Like the Denis Diderot (1749) essay from which it takes its title, Téllez’ film commissioned by Creative Time, is an exercise in translation between the senses, an experiment in synaesthesia.
It’s a quixotic project, this attempt to visualize the unseen, but an apt one for the Venezuela-born, New York-based Téllez. Over the past decade he has worked with ‘invisible’ populations: the disabled, the poor and those institutionalized for metal illness. That the concept of ‘working with’ is linguistically – and politically – ambiguous is precisely the point. These marginal communities are, essentially, Téllez’ medium. At the same time his film, video and installation-based pieces grow out of and encompass extended collaborative work with his subjects. He walks a tricky, often unsettling line. He flirts with – and yet avoids – the twin perils of exploitation and do-gooder-ism, deriving ethics and aesthetics from the situation in which he finds himself.
If it’s possible to be born into such a role, Téllez’ autobiography would qualify him. The son of two psychiatrists, he grew up tagging along to the institution his father supervised. At a yearly festival there were beauty contests: doctors and patients would, for a day, exchange uniforms. Such carnivalesque reversals remain a powerful trope in Téllez’ work. One Flew over the Void (Balla perdida) (2005) – created for inSite, a biennial event straddling the Mexico/US border – is literally a carnival. With residents of a Mexican mental institution the artist developed a public spectacle – part circus, part protest march – around the theme of borders, literal and metaphorical. The rally culminated in a professional human cannonball being shot over the fence dividing Tijuana and San Diego.
Bizarrely resonant images such as this, simultaneously absurd and heady with reference, form the core of Téllez’ projects. In the video El león de Caracas (The Lion of Caracas, 2002), a stuffed and mounted lion makes its way down the vertiginous steps of a hillside Caracas shanty town, borne by four uniformed police officers. The lion, symbol of the Venezuelan capital, here takes the place of a Holy Week saint, while the procession also recalls the all too common ritual of police carrying a corpse out of the ranchitos. As giggling children rush forward to touch the immobile animal, the cops shuffle awkwardly in the background, all enlisted in a strange portrait of power and powerlessness. For You Are Here (2002) Téllez presented patients of an appallingly medieval Venezuelan mental institution with an enormous inflatable ball, a super-sized version of a stuffed cat toy. Rolling it through the labyrinthine corridors and out into the courtyard, they somehow spontaneously conspire (after many harrowing minutes of the blackest of slapstick comedy) to push the huge object over the wall, effecting its escape.
La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Rozelle Hospital) (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Rozelle Hospital, 2004) offers a more elaborate intervention. Téllez spent a month in workshops with a group of 12 women at an institution in Sydney. After viewing the Carl Dreyer film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) the patients wrote new intertitles. Unsurprisingly, they reconceived it as the story of ‘JDA’, committed for believing she was Joan of Arc, ‘suffering from grandiose visions and auditory hallucinations’. Presented as a two-channel piece, the revamped silent film is accompanied by a series of intimate interviews with the co-creators. One woman conducts a dialogue with a marionette therapist, perfectly ventriloquizing the language of the professional mental health worker; another reads journal entries detailing her electroshock treatments. A young woman offers a giddy monologue of her institutionalization, while explaining her knowledge of Morse code through a past life memory. Suddenly, she breaks into song, a moving hymn proclaiming her resistance to rules and bureaucracy.
In the words of British psychologist Adam Phillips, madness ‘is defined, so to speak, by what it elicits in others’. And it is precisely through definition that the so-called mad are contained, administered and treated, in ways that are more or less useful, more or less humane. Téllez’ work manages to escape this logic: it is designed to elicit a response while circumventing the structure of definition altogether. He offers nothing as positivist as a ‘position’ on mental illness, and certainly nothing in the way of a cure. Rather, his odd and compelling spectacles embrace the irrational as a method of translation pressed to its limits. They are a series of letters on the mad, for the use of those who think themselves sane.- Steven Stern

Letter on the Blind, For the Use of Those Who See

The story of the six blind men and the elephant, which serves as the fulcrum for Javier Téllez’s installation at Arthouse, presents one of those platitudes that at first seems incredibly obvious but becomes chillingly prescient with a little investigation. Plenty of versions exist with plenty of diverging plot points, but the gist of the story is that six blind men are tasked with identifying an elephant by touch alone. Because the elephant is an enormous and varied animal, each man makes a wildly different guess based on which part of the elephant he approaches. The man touching the tusk imagines the animal to be a sewer pipe, while the man who touches its towering side thinks it most likely a wall. Though we know that they have not accurately described the elephant’s complete corporeal state, none of their perceptions are incorrect. The elephant’s nature is a composite made inscrutable by a limited perspective.

Javier Téllez, Letter on the Blind, For the Use of Those Who See (still), 2007; 16mm film transferred to high-definition video with sound; courtesy Arthouse at the Jones Center.
The story’s implication that we’re incapable of perceiving all but the most superficial aspects of some phenomenal object before us is scary. Or hopeful, if, like me, you find the idea of a universal perceptive limitation vaguely comforting. Rather than merely insisting on the legitimacy of diverging perspectives, the story presents us with a means to gather in our ignorance.
In Letter on the Blind, For the Use of Those Who See, Téllez abandons limitation as an essential facet of the fable. His film presents six blind people confronting an elephant in an abandoned courtyard of Brooklyn’s McCarren Park swimming pool. Accompanied by a spare panpipe-like soundtrack and filmed in black-and-white, each person approaches the elephant and feels it. After each is seated, Téllez cuts in with a slow and sustained shot of the animal’s skin, framed so tight that it seems more an abstract image—almost a contour map—while in voiceover, the person who just touched the elephant describes some personal take on experiencing blindness. These moments are arresting and dreamy, made even more so because the elephant’s breathing causes the background to shift slowly. Narrowing the viewer’s gaze to an abstract image presents a sly visual analog to the subjects’ descriptions of their condition.
In spite of its earnestness as a walk-two-moons-in-another-man’s-moccasins narrative, the film arrives at some fairly banal assertions. Each person who approaches the elephant self-narrates while touching it and walking around it slowly, but very little of what they say is substantially different from what any person might say when first encountering a magnificent and strange animal. The essential riddle at the heart of the original story—that we cannot ever know the extent of the reality presented us—is here circumvented and defanged because the documentary’s subjects already knew that they would encounter an elephant. They approach the elephant, awed by its size and the texture of its skin, but they only speak about blindness during close-up shots that are separate from their interactions; even then, these observations don’t relate to touching an elephant. The film falls short by presenting blindness as particular to the blind instead of as a condition endemic to human experience. Limitation as a condition of the original story has been made merely literal. Instead of concerning itself with what the elephant is, Téllez’s film focuses on what the elephant resembles. The difference between these figures may seem slight, but it contains all the difference between magic—replacing one thing with another—and description.

Javier Téllez, Letter on the Blind, For the Use of Those Who See (still), 2007; 16mm film transferred to high-definition video with sound; courtesy Arthouse at the Jones Center.
Invoking the classic story without corresponding to its conditions incites a kind of impatience that otherwise would not exist. When an idea so freighted with potential connections is carried out, it’s annoying that there’s little surprise or generative tension in the result. It doesn’t help that the work’s title assumes an explanatory stance, with its invocation of a letter about or from the blind sent for the use of the sighted. Téllez lists the six subjects of the film as “collaborators;” his intention is to grant them participatory status and the wall text accompanying the installation makes much of the fact that the six of them speak their names during the credits, inhabiting the piece vocally since they cannot seemingly enter it any other way. Unfortunately, this only highlights the fact that the film gives them few other opportunities to truly collaborate with Téllez. It’s ultimately unclear what use those who see are meant to make of the work.
Even so, footage of a person (sighted or not) touching an elephant for the first time is compelling stuff. The soundtrack’s restraint gives it a narrative presence; the repeated phrase that summons each person to the elephant and signals their return to their seats implies an injunction to participate in a ritual, as if gathering sensory experience is part of a longstanding human pageant. That more humble sentiment propels this film in spite of its educational trappings.- S.E. Smith

Javier Téllez by Pedro Reyes 

Oedipus Marshal, 2006, still from single-channel video. 30 minutes. Comissioned by Aspen Art Museum, Aspen. All images courtesy of the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich.
Erasmus of Rotterdam claimed there were three types of people: those who lived in a dream world, those who lived in reality, and those who were able to turn one world into the other. The Venezuelan artist Javier Téllez belongs in this third category of people for whom the boundary between reality and unreality, reason and madness, is not only shadowy but also worth delving into. For the Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing such constructs do nothing but create artificial divisions whose function is to ensure the preservation of the status quo. If, in a similar vein, Téllez’s projects build a bridge between these two worlds, opening the possibility of creative collaborations with the so-called mentally ill, he avoids the pieties associated with art therapy by warning us that he seeks “not a therapeutic practice to cure the insane but rather one to cure the sane of their lucidity.”
Téllez and I once played telephone with tin cans perched on trees at the Utopia Station site for the 50th Venice Biennale, but, for the following interview, we discussed his increasingly depurated film projects—Oedipus Marshal (2006), (2007), and Caligari and the Sleepwalker (2008)—over the less cumbersome and more contemporary mediums of the telephone, email, and Skype.

Pedro Reyes Where should we begin? At the beginning or at the end?
Javier Téllez In the middle.
PR Which part is the middle?
JT The middle would be the present.
PR Javier, in the development of your work over the past 15 or 20 years, you’d always used video, but lately your work has consisted of films.
JT I’ve always wanted to make films. My grandfather founded one of the first movie theaters in Venezuela in 1911: the Capitol Theater in Turmero, the small town where my mother was born. We’d visit often, so I spent part of my childhood in the projection booth. Since I was a kid, I would film what I saw around me with the old Bell and Howell camera my dad gave me. Later I studied film and acquired a Super-8 camera so that I could make movies using my friends as actors. In the ’90s, I used video because it was a more accessible medium. It’s only in the past five years that I’ve managed to create films. The brilliant Cain-Abel image Godard used in Sauve qui peut explains the relationship between film and video beautifully. The truth is that these days, it’s impossible to conceive of the one without the other. Though video is immediate and readily lends itself to the urgency that imbues many of my projects, film, on the other hand, possesses an unquestionable element of “reality.” That is, film as a medium is constituted as “reality” by being both exposed, or developed, and exposed, or shown, before an audience. I prefer to make movies on film although, in the end, for practical reasons, I might transfer them to video. For me, film “incarnates.” As a medium it registers precisely the idea with which we began this conversation—being in the middle, in the here and now.
PR In Godard’s Le petit soldat, while the protagonist is taking pictures of a character named Veronica, he utters the now famous quote: “Photography is truth. And cinema is truth 24 frames a second.” The etymology of the name Veronica is “the true image,” and it refers to the cloak with which Saint Veronica wiped the face of Christ during the Passion. His image remained on the cloak—we could say it’s the first Polaroid in history. Might it be that the chemical stigmata that light leaves on the negative is what makes cinema true?
JT Cinema is the wound and the stain, no doubt, but the stain in motion! “If something is to stay in memory, it must be burned in,” Nietzsche wrote in his Genealogy of Morals. Film burns this truth 24 times a second. The Council of Nicea recounts that a certain Harrasin of Gabala drove a nail into the eye of an icon, and instantly lost one of his own. This was perhaps the first antecedent of Vertov and his Kino-Eye, or the celebrated image of Luis Buñuel. Yet another story of cinema before cinema, protocinema.
Also, the time and effort that completing a cinematographic production requires is a sort of Passion. In order to produce the icon, we need to bear the cross that precedes the epiphany. And the successive appearance of the body on the screen is, without a doubt, a form of resurrection. Some great 20th-century filmmakers have been interested in depicting the epiphany of reality on celluloid: Buñuel, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and, especially, Roberto Rossellini. All of them have been under the theoretical influence of André Bazin, and had a relationship to Catholicism and the permissiveness of the image that opened up with the Counter-Reformation. I’ve always seen a continuation of the chapter in art history that Caravaggio and the Spanish Golden Age painters opened in the films by these directors.
PR So going to the cinema, then, would be a sort of sacramental act.
JT It could even be seen as a form of Eucharist. The absorption of static images on the spectator’s retina, read by the nervous system as images in movement, is a sort of transubstantiation of the bodies represented on the screen.

Caligari and the Sleepwalker, 2008, still from high-definition video. 27 minutes, 7 seconds. Comissioned by Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin.
PR In your last film, Caligari and the Sleepwalker, you include a scene of the actors attending a screening of the same film they’ll reenact: the 1920 Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari by Robert Wiene. Talk about the phenomenon of somnambulism in the film. Are there analagous relationships between wakefulness and sleep, reason and common sense, life and film?
JT Any film lover is fascinated by the double mechanism that registers images and projects them to create the illusion of movement. The cinematographic mechanism’s hypnotizing quality is one of the fundamental themes of Caligari and the Sonambulist. Curator Valerie Smith invited me to make a film in Berlin that would be shown in the exhibition Rational/Irrational at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. As is my usual practice, I decided to make a film in collaboration with the patients of a local psychiatric institution. The two elements I used as springboards for my collaboration with the patients were the Wiene film and Mendelsohn’s observatory Einsteinturm (the Einstein Tower). Both icons of German Expressionism were produced simultaneously in Potsdam at the beginning of the ’20s and constitute the swan song of the avant-garde movement. So, I watched the film with the patients and invited them to make a new version of it primarily inside Mendelsohn’s building.
Hypnosis is one of the themes in Wiene’s Caligari, as is madness—it contains one of the first cinematograpic representations of a psychiatric hosital. This is what led me to present it to the patients in the first place. The way cinema relates to hypnosis and spiritism has been present from the very first texts that describe the perception of images in motion. The history of modern psychiatry, too, is linked to hypnosis via Charcot and La Salpêtrière. It’s only natural that these themes reappear in a project that directly engages a film like Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. We were particularly interested in exploring visual and auditory hallucination.
PR Mendelsohn’s building, a solar observatory that is surprisingly smaller than the idealized image we see in architecture books, operates in your film as a magician’s tower or an extraterrestrial space station.
JT When I inititally proposed the idea of Mendelsohn’s tower as an image to the patients, they developed a narrative that strayed from the original story of Dr. Caligari’s cabinet. From the horror genre of the original film, we moved toward science fiction. The telescope that inhabits Mendelsohn’s building—we could say that the whole building is the apparatus—becomes a machine that produces the narrative of delirium. It’s a bit like in Adolfo Bioy Casares’s story “The Invention of Morel,” where a quasi-cinematic machine produces simulacra of characters and situations inside an abandoned building.
In his classic study of hallucinations, On the Origin of the “Influencing Machine” in Schizophrenia, the psychoanalyst Viktor Tausk, who was a colleague of Freud’s, describes a psychic device that he calls “the schizophrenic influencing machine.” It’s as if a machine caused patients to experience flat visual hallucinations. A sort of magic lantern, the machine creates or removes thoughts via mystical rays or forces that also produce involuntary movements in the patient’s body, discharges of semen, and erections. The schizophrenic patient describes these sensations as manifestations of electrical or magnetic energies. Tausk’s writings on his patient’s delusions could easily fit in a reader of what’s been called the “cinematographic apparatus.” Also fundamental are the detailed descriptions by James Tilly Matthews, a patient at an English insane asylum at the turn of the 18th century, of the imaginary “air loom machine” used by villains to control people, and Memoirs of My Nervous Illness by Daniel Paul Schreber, a patient of Freud’s. I see these as a sort of counter-technology, constructed from within mental illness, that challenge Bentham’s Panopticon and the other control apparatuses abounding in the history of psychiatry.
Mendelsohn’s fantastic solar observatory became central to our narrative because it functioned as a schizophrenic machine allowing hallucinations to be transmitted through contagion or projection. All of this, in short, as a metaphor for film.

Caligari and the Sleepwalker, 2008, still from high-definition video. 
PR Is film a phenomenon similar to lucid dreaming, where one takes control of one’s dream?
JT: For sure film and dreams are siblings. With Caligari and the Somnambulist, I’d like for something akin to Chuang Tsu’s dream of the butterfly to occur.
PR In your film the patients are simultaneously actors and spectators of their own action. Given that you filmed them watching the movie you made with them and then included this footage in a subsequent version of the film, is this split within the ego an analogy for schizophrenia?
JT As the patients watch the film, they make comments that later the spectators of my film experience non-diegetically as voice-overs—the power of the disembodied voice is characteristic of auditory hallucination. And the exchange of roles between spectators and participants in my film continues with the carnivalesque spirit of all the work I develop in collaboration with people who are mentally ill.
PR What about the chalkboards on which the patients write their own dialogue? They are a resource you’ve taken from silent films, but in what almost amounts to a Brechtian break, in your films they’re held by the actors themselves.
JT Chalkboards are a constant in my films. They reaffirm the way that cinema, as a medium, is inscription—a type of mystic writing pad, a palimpsest reaffirming the pedagogical nature of the work of destigmatization. They can be read literally as an image that gives the patients voice by introducing the canceled or excluded language of those who live with mental illness within Logos. Also, the introduction of written language within the context of visual representation represents a distancing from the passive consumption of the image in motion.
PR In your Caligari, and also in your film Oedipus Marshal, the Western you made in a ghost town near Aspen, Colorado in collaboration with patients of a nearby psychiatric hospital, you work with the suppression of a particular resource. In Caligari, it was the voice; in Oedipus Marshal, facial expressions were substituted with masks.
JT Voice-overs, or disembodied voices, are a recurring element in my films; yet the idea of hearing voices is something that patients bring to the narratives on their own, without my having instigated it. The case of Oedipus Marshal was particularly interesting to me, since the voices in the auditory hallucinations had been inspired by the role of the chorus in classical tragedy. And in my film Letter on The Blind For Those Of Us Who See, the voice, per force, was the principal medium of collaboration with the blind people.

Caligari and the Sleepwalker, 2008, still from high-definition video.
PR You’ve told me that prior to beginning a project you hold workshops where you sit with patients to discuss their ideas, develop the plot of the films, and make casting decisions with them. Aside from technique, what makes your Caligari unique to me is the collective playwriting process.
JT Each project is specific, since it is the result of collaborating with particular people. Of course, I accumulate experience and learn from each project. Normally, before beginning a new project, I show my earlier films to the patients I’m going to work with: this also might generate a certain sense of continuity.
PR The Brazilian director Augusto Boal said that Aristotle promoted the use of the chorus in classical tragedy because it relieved the audience from their need to express themselves in the face of a tragedy’s unfolding: “You don’t need to express your opinion; the chorus will do it for you.” When you open the door to the patient’s participation, in terms of playwriting, are you allowing for an array of different outcomes? Are you interested in the possibility of reinventing drama?
JT I still have my doubts about Boal. I think that, in the end, his reading of Aristotle’s Poetics is limited, as is his formulation of a “theater of the oppressed,” which doesn’t successfully depart from a didactic model. Boal’s experiments seem to seek to demonstrate the therapist’s mastery, and this might be a continuation of Jacob Levi Moreno’s psychodrama. It’s necessary to place Antonin Artaud up against Brecht; and up against Boal, to posit more relevant experiences such as Grotowski and The Living Theater, or the invisible theater of happenings. What we find in these is the unscripted creation of uncontrolled performative situations where the limits of reality and theater are dissolved through catharsis, collective rituals, the spectator’s active involvement, and the carnavalesque. Perhaps Boal isn’t aware of the true Dionysian spirit of Greek tragedy when he distances himself from the most interesting theatrical experiment of the first half of the 20th century: Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty.

Oedipus Marshal, 2006, still from single-channel video.
PR Regarding psychodrama, Jacob Levi Moreno was focused on the idea of “training spontaneity”: the therapeutic role of creativity in the impromptu creation of a play. In film production, the threshold of spontaneity is reduced, since ensuring the image’s quality requires a certain control. Can you give me an example of an element that arose in the sessions with the patients that you later incorporated into Oedipus Marshal as you were making the film?
JT The script is always written with the patients, but in their performances of it there are always variations and surprises, especially since we’re talking about people who have never had professional experience as actors. It’s inevitable that they’ll produce unexpected results. I’m interested in working right on that line where patients will continue to be themselves but at the same time will be possessed by the characters they’ve created. My projects—like all cinema, perhaps—exist halfway between documentary and fiction. Spontaneity might be read in a variety of ways. I agree with Robert Bresson when he argues that theater in its classical form destroys the spontaneity of actors given that their acting must be repeated and rehearsed innumerable times. The cinematographic record, on the other hand, is unique—it’s the record of an instant that only repeats when it is projected.

Oedipus Marshal, 2006, still from single-channel video. 30 minutes. Comissioned by Aspen Art Museum, Aspen.
PR One question I genuinely ask myself in relation to your work has to do with the notion of agency. Placards and blackboards provide the patients with agency.
JT They’re props in the sense that Artaud uses them in Theater of Cruelty—props that become meaningful in their own right, beyond their functional value within the plot. It’s a kind of bricolage, where patients can interpret all kinds of diverse elements when talking about their lived experiences.
In the workshops the patients become a collective. We read a film, a building, a fable, or a Greek tragedy as texts—this was the case for Caligari and the Somnambulist, as I explained, and also for my version of The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Oedipus Marshal. This text I bring to the patients functions as the connector that might allow for collective agency—I often work with patients who don’t know each other very well, so starting off reading a text is very helpful. For Oedipus Marshal, we selected Sophocles’s tragedy alongside the genre of the Western (the movie was filmed in Colorado) as points of departure. I’m deeply interested in how the patients translate the original narrative into their own reality. The Greek tragedy underwent a process of metamorphosis when it was adapted to the specific circumstances of the American West and to the realm of mental illness. Patients read the figure of Oedipus as a schizophrenic instead of as a Freudian neurotic. The voices of the Greek chorus, in our narrative, became the main character’s auditory hallucinations.
We used a range of genres—Westerns, Japanese Noh theater, and Greek tragedy—not to create parodies but rather as containers for new meanings that might be produced via the strategies of the bricoleur.
PR It’s fascinating that you’d distance yourself from parody. Parody makes fun of a genre at the same time it uses its resources. It seems to me that your work is closer to a theory of metatheater—or, in your case, metacinema. In your films, our reading of the actors’ work cannot be disassociated from our knowledge of their mental condition. Are you interested in Peter Brook’s The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade?
JT A person living with mental illness lives Rimbaud’s “I am an Other.” It’s not difficult for him or her to reach a state of possession. Marat/Sade, or more precisely, what we imagine Sade’s theatrical representations might have been based on Peter Weiss’s play are an interesting phenomenon, since they operate within an exchange of roles between spectator and actor. This also relates to the carnivalesque spectacle in which the world was turned upside down: the medieval theatrical representation of the celebration of madmen using entire towns as their stage.
The presence of carnival within my work comes from the visits I made during my childhood to the carnivals of the psychiatric hospital of Barbula, where my father worked as a psychiatrist. Patients there would trade their uniforms for the hygenic white coats of the doctors. This image, “burned in memory,” has stayed with me for the rest of my life, and has become one of the guiding images of my work.

Caligari and the Sleepwalker, 2008, installation with single-channel projection. Installation shot of Mind the Gap, Kunsthaus Baselland, Muttenz, 2009. Photo by Viktor Kolibal.
PR I’ve asked you before if you consider your work to be therapeutic. You responded that more than curing crazy people, you are interested in curing sane people of their sanity.
JT The cure for the sane and the cure for the sick: negation and affirmation at the same time. Madness is situated beyond language, it shares a liminal condition with art.
The problem with therapeutic psychodrama, like the one proposed by Jacob Levi Moreno, is that it continues to enact the privileged position of the therapist, of the one who administers the cure. I prefer a truly dialogic method, an inter-subjective model in which the encounter with the other might be possible without the eradication of difference. I’m thinking concretely about the films of Jean Rouch, who’s been a huge influence on my work. In other words, I’d prefer my practice be seen as a bridge, and not as a path to a goal.
PR Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See is undoubtedly a film about inter-subjectivity.
JT It presented a particular problem—
PR Epistemologically?
JT And phenomenologically, too: how to make a film in collaboration with blind people, some of whom had never seen in their lives. The solution came from the voice and from touch. The camera recorded the tactile experiences of the blind as they touched the body of an elephant, but the images were later edited with recorded descriptions from the blind people. The film’s viewer, then, was located within the point of view of the person who cannot see (a blind spot for sure). For a while I’d been wanting to make a film about blindness as homage to my mother, who gradually lost her vision during the last years of her life.

Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See, 2007, still from high-definition video. 27 minutes, 36 seconds. Comissioned by Creative Time, New York.
PR The premise of the film originates in the Hindu fable “The Blind Men and the Elephant.”
JT The project for the film started off with the Indian fable of the elephant and the six blind men—the Eastern counterpart to our Platonic cave, and another history of protocinema. Six blind men attempt to recognize a pachyderm. Each one touches a different part of the animal, so therefore they cannot reach an agreement about the elephant’s characteristics. The premise of the parable is erroneous given that the blind men were not allowed to touch the animal’s entire body—one of my sightless collaborators highlighted this during the making of the film. For me, the film itself becomes the elephant that the spectators, those who see, have to recognize despite their limitations. Their main limitation is that since they can’t stop seeing, they cannot access blindness.
PR There’s a phrase from Diderot saying: “If you want me to believe in God, you must make me touch him.” Are you interested in Diderot’s rationalism?
JT No, we only took the title of our film from Diderot’s text. We might touch the veil, but not the body of God. This reminds me of that classic story about trompe l’oeil retold by Pliny the Elder: the rivalry between the painters Parrhasius and Zeuxis was resolved through a competition. Zeuxis asks Parrhasius to unveil his painting, soon realizing that there is no veil to lift; what he’s seeing is represented within the painting itself. Parrhasius’s indisputable mastery is demonstrated. This is a very beautiful story about the illusory nature of all representation. As illusionists, which we are by nature, it’s our task to signal the limits of language itself: negation and affirmation at the same time.

Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See, 2007, still from high-definition video.
PR On the topic of tricks, let’s talk about ha-ha walls.
JT It’s fascinating that you mention them. In Sydney, in the Rozelle hospital where I shot The Passion of Jeanne d’Arc, I found some original remains of ha-ha walls built around the asylum. The ha-ha wall is an important architectural element in the renovation of psychiatric institutions, as it permits the inmates of the institution an illusory contemplation of the landscape, and yet at the same time isolates them from the rest of society. The ha-ha is thus as much a sophisticated mechanism of control as Bentham’s Panopticon.
As for tricks, have you heard the joke about the hole in the hospital wall? A flaneur is walking around the outer wall of a psychiatric institution, sees a hole in the wall, and hears that on the other side someone is repeating “One hundred, one hundred, one hundred . . .” The flaneur peeks through the hole and sees a patient behind the wall who sticks an awl through the hole, and pulls out the prier’s eye, and begins repeating “One hundred and one, one hundred and one, one hundred and one . . .”
PR Ha!
JT Seems like today we’re paying homage to Don Luis, don’t you think?
PR Buñuel? Oh yes. In My Last Sigh he says that his lack of interest in science is due to its limited ability to explain those matters of deepest concern to him—dreams and laughter, for instance. If you explain a joke, it ceases to be funny. There’s a type of knowledge that we can only access through art, or artifice.
JT In that sense, the best translation of the term trompe l’oeil would be eye trap.
PR So speaking of walls, let’s return to architecture.
JT One of the recurring thematic concerns in my work with people living with mental illness is architecture. The architecture of confinement is obviously an everyday concern for those who experience it or have been institutionalized. The image of the house keeps reapparing in their visual representations. A person who is mentally ill is basically a homeless person forced into an interior exile by the rest of society—no wonder Oedipus functioned so perfectly as the alter ego of my collaborators. The psychiatric institution is a home forced upon the patient, an architectural straitjacket that the patient must survive in or transgress. This is why I’ve been interested in making architectural works in the past: the gigantic birdhouse Bedlam from 1999; Liftoff, from 2001, which is another birdhouse designed by a patient as a hybrid between a trap and a gigantic loudspeaker; Choreutics, from 2001, a gigantic spider web in the form of a fish trap; and finally, in the installation version of Caligari and the Somnambulist, a pavilion made of chalkboards serving as a projection room. The image of the trap inverts the institutional trap in these works. Somehow it responds to the image of the burrow in Kafka, in which as Deleuze and Guattari claim, “Only the principle of multiple entrances prevents the introduction of the enemy.”
PR We started out talking about Godard, who once said: “A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end . . . but not necessarily in that order.” We’ve already talked about the present and the past. Can you tell me what you plan to do in the future?
JT . . .

Madness is the Language of the Excluded,” An interview with Javier Téllez by Michèle Faguet and Cristóbal Lehyt, C Magazine 92, Toronto, Winter 2006
The interview format is most fitting for a discussion of the recent work of Javier Téllez given that he is so articulate and forthcoming about the complicated set of references—historical, literary, cultural, personal—that have informed his practice. Téllez is earnest in his attempt to engage in an ethical, consequential manner with communities of individuals who live outside of the models of normative behavior that define the parameters of a ‘sane’ society but that are constantly shifting in relation to the ideological structures that determine this social order.

Téllez’s interest in articulating a position of alterity is partly autobiographical: both of his parents were practicing psychiatrists in the provincial city of Valencia, Venezuela. His father, a Spanish immigrant, was a pioneer in his field and the first to introduce certain psychotropic treatments in Venezuela. Perhaps his exposure from a very early age to those deemed mentally ill by the medical establishment produced a recognition of the process of alterity as a permanent cultural condition, inscribed within Western epistemological models of identity based on antagonistic binarisms of self and other.

The collaborative nature of his work means that the final product presented in an art context has been determined collectively and is not necessarily based on the aesthetic considerations we might come to expect. In this conversation Téllez has described his work as documentation of fictional scenarios constructed from within the psychiatric institution from the point of view of those who inhabit it. What the viewer sees is a work that has no claim to authority, no centered point of view; it is not easy work but vulnerable and ambivalent. It is work that demands the viewer’s active participation.

MF& CL: When speaking about your work you have often made reference to the phonetic similarity between museum and mausoleum written about by Adorno. Your own proximity to and interest in psychiatric practice has resulted in a series of works that extracts, in an almost archaeological manner, objects from the sterile, white hospital wards that make up the visual landscape of the mentally ill, and inserts these objects into the pristine white cube of the museum. Can you elaborate on what you see to be the processes of selection and exclusion common to both psychiatric and curatorial practices?

JT: The museum and the psychiatric hospital are products of the enlightenment project. It is not a coincidence that ‘la convention’ of the first republic opened the Louvre to the public in 1793 at the same time that Philippe Pinel was named chief physician of Bicêtre. It is as if the same impulse that created the museum liberated the patients from their chains, marking both the birth of the modern asylum and the public museum.

Growing up as the son of two psychiatrists, I often visited the psychiatric hospital where my father worked. At that time I also began to go to museums and I remember that even back then I already found a lot of similarities between both types of institutions: hygienic spaces, long corridors, enforced silence and the weight of the architecture…Both institutions are symbolic representations of authority, founded on taxonomies based on the ‘normal’ and the ‘pathological,’ inclusion and exclusion.

I have always been very interested in these ‘other’ museums of the pathological: the wunderkamern, freak shows, collections of art of the mentally ill, exhibitions like “Entartete kunst” or “l’art brut,” because in their morbidity they reveal to us the ‘pathology of the museum,’ showing precisely that what is excluded from the museum is what constitutes its very foundation: "El sueño de la razón que produce monstruos." (The sleep of reason that produces monsters)

La Extraccion de la piedra de la locura  (The Cure of Folly), 1996, is my first project that deals with a specific psychiatric hospital. The installation filled an entire floor of the Museum of Fine Arts in Caracas, and was intended as an archeology of the psychiatric institution Barbula, the state hospital where my father worked all of his life. But it was also a critical reflection on the museum—the installation was presented as a museum within the museum and included archival material like a collection of photographs documenting the life of the institution since its foundation in the late 50s, psychological tests, medications, electro-shock machines, etc. The installation also contained a selection of artworks made by the patients. This piece represented my first collaboration with mental patients and included, for example, a series of piñatas that patients made especially for the installation shaped after pharmaceutical pills like Prozac or Valium. The idea was to create a panorama of the psychiatric institution presenting as many different visions as possible. Visitors would see an institutional history of treatments represented in display cases, but would also be given the opportunity to hear the ‘voice’ of the patients represented in their artworks and the piñatas. Since then, I have become more interested in this collaboration with patients. If there is a critique of the mental institution it make more sense that it be articulated by them.

MF& CL: Your work has been described as giving visibility to peripheral or neglected communities or situations. Your collaboration with mental patients necessarily treads a thin line between representation and exploitation. How do you negotiate your own position when working with patients?

JT: The question of ethics is always at the core of representation. Mental illness only exists within the realm of representation: it is a language and our task is to challenge it. Most “objective” representations of the mentally ill have been made by the psychiatric institution, in which the discourses of the patients are always categorized as mere illustrations of their diagnoses, not to mention stigmatic media constructions.  The experience of madness can be situated historically in between the prohibitions against action and against language; these prohibitions also involve the representation of the body of the mentally ill, observed and catalogued only as a representation of the illness. Fortunately  there are also counter discourses articulated by the patients themselves that can be use as models to understand the problem of language. Artists and writers like Hölderlin, Artaud, Richard Dadd, Adolf Wölfli, Artur Bispo do Rosario, Louis Wolfson and others have created a language of rupture that not only questions the conception of madness but also  the fundaments of language itself. These discourses can be used, above all, as tools for a definition of the ethics of representation of those with mental illness. The question is: How might we define a system of ethics capable of moving beyond the dichotomy of the normal and the pathological?

In my practice I try to create a flexible space where those represented can intervene in their own representation. According to Levinas, ethics is a devotion to the other: “I have to forget myself to acces the other.” Ethics has to be understood as a responsibility to difference. For me this responsibility is manifest in the inclusion of the other as an active participant of the work. This participation is capital in the process of production of the work: the patients are the main actors, work on the scripts of the pieces, choose the props, review the footage and comment on it…

This inclusion obviously takes place within a framework that includes the conditions of distribution and reception of the art system. In the end it is about working in collaboration with other people and I never pretend not to be visible in the discouse, but the work is articulated in the dialogue between my subjectivity and their subjectivities.

Our interaction with the other is inevitably framed in a certain way, but this frame can offer the possibility for change. Cinematic history illustrates this big ‘jump-cut’ from Lumieres’ fixed camera on the workers exiting the factory to the sequence shots of Rossellini’s Roma, città aperta.

The making of each piece is different because each situation is different: over time we learn from previous experiences. There are also specific factors that shape the encounters with the patients: the length of time spent with them, their input, the willingness of the staff to allow me to work within the facilities, the architecture of the institution, etc.  I always attempt to propose an idea that will trigger some sort of dialogue. This idea or ‘imago’ is sometimes related to the specificity of the site: for example the idea of a human cannonball crossing the Mexico-US border in Tijuana. In this case the idea was developed in conversations with psychiatric patients from the Baja California Mental Health Center in Mexicali; we organized a workshop with those interested in the project and ideas were exchanged. I try my best to create structures that include a variety of different approaches to the original idea. Sometimes certain ideas have to be edited out for practical reasons or because they interfere with other ideas.

In Tijuana the point of departure was to create a public event with the patients culminating in the crossing of the border by a human cannonball. The patients saw the geopolitical border between the US and Mexico as a metaphor for another frontier: that which confined them to the mental institution. Through the presence of the human cannonball, they embraced the idea of the circus and created an animal parade, in which the patients wore animal masks and carried signs with phrases like: ‘patients are human beings too,’ and ‘to live with drugs is no way to live.’ The parade was more like a political demonstration that ended with a circus act in which the patients read speeches and performed a lion tamer act. Given the opportunity to choose which flag would be hung on the ‘barda’ [border fence] as a backdrop for this spectacle, they decided to create a new flag made from cut outs of the Mexican and American flag, that was14 meters in length.

MF& CL: Last December you exhibited La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Rozelle Hospital) 2004 at the Power Plant in your first solo exhibition in Canada. Can you tell me about this project?

JT: La Passion de Jeanne d’arc (Rozelle Hospital) was a video installation made in collaboration with female patients of a psychiatric hospital in Sydney. We used Dreyer’s 1928 film of the same title as a point of departure. Twelve female patients watched this silent film during a workshop that we organized and then created a new set of intertitles for it. Then we filmed the patients writing the intertitles on a blackboard and edited it into the film, to be shown without any other cuts. There is also another projection of a 16mm color film consisting of individual monologues of the women’s particular experiences within the mental health system.

The intertitles made by the patients altered the original narrative of the film: the protagonist J.D.A is a newly admitted patient of Rozelle Hospital diagnosed as a schizophrenic suffering from ‘’delusions of grandeur’’ because she believes that she is Joan of Arc. Here, the trial of the French saint that constitutes three quarters of Dreyer’s original film is presented as a process of institutionalization in the hospital and makes references to psychiatric interviews, form releases, medication, isolation rooms, and punitive electroshock therapy.   

The piece operates on several different levels of translation. First, we have a film that represents a particular period of history and a specific time and place that becomes displaced as events in the new version of the film are re-situated within the Rozelle hospital from the very first frame, showing the symbolic similarities between intolerance toward difference during the inquisition and the stigmatization of the mentally ill. We are also dealing with an originally avant-garde film that has become a classic, used as a ‘blackboard’ that can always be rewritten—a palimpsest that refers to obsolescence and memory.

Dreyer’s La Passion de Jean d’arc also has several connections to mental illness beginning with the fact that Joan of Arc was played by Maria Falconneti, an actress who later became mentally ill and committed suicide in Argentina. Also, Antonin Artaud is cast in the film as one of the principal actors, while the use of close-ups and physiognomy make reference to one of the foundational tools of psychiatry. The particular history of the film director’s cut is significant as well: the film was censored in France and accidentally burned in Germany and disappeared for more than half a century until it finally reappeared in the closet of a mental institution outside Oslo!

Mental illness is fundamentally a question of language, and is also a question placed onto language itself, since we build language on the basis of exclusion. Madness is the language of the excluded.

One of the things that interested me the most about the patients’ intervention in the film was their ability to ‘do the voices’ of the psychiatrists and other institutional staff. This ability is seldom present on the other side— the language of the institution can never mimic those subjected to its dominant discourse. When patients’ statements are cited in clinical discourses they always appear as manifestations of the diagnosis. In other words, language represents a set of symptoms. The same applies to the reading of so called ‘Art of the mentally ill.’ 

MF: I’m particularly interested in the fact that this is the first work of yours that explicitly deals with gender and how gender has influenced historical constructions of mental illness.

JT: The question of gender is very important to the piece. This is obvious in that the collaborators are all women; in fact this was the first time that I had selected my collaborators according to gender. Because I had chosen to work with the feminist icon, Joan of Arc, it would not have made much sense to work with male patients who perhaps would have directed the piece to a less specific interpretation of the story. Because Joan of Arc barely speaks during the trial depicted in the film, working with the women gave the character a voice to confront the dominant male discourses. This piece obviously acknowledges the way in which mental illness has historically been constructed around gender. These ‘epistemes’ have, without doubt, changed considerably but are nonetheless still present today. 

MF& CL: Your most recent project Oedipus Marshal pushes the idea of collaboration with mental patients one step further: this piece is a feature length narrative film featuring actors from the Oasis Clubhouse, a psychiatric facility near Aspen. Co-writer Aaron Sheley is also a resident of this facility.

JT: Oedipus Marshal is a film we made this year in Aspen, and was commissioned and produced by the Aspen Art Museum. When Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, director of the museum and the curator of this project, visited my studio last year to offer me a residency, I spoke to her about my long time desire to create a western film in collaboration with people living with mental illness. Since the exhibition was in Colorado it presented itself as the ideal scenario for the film. When I visited Aspen it became obvious that I would not find a mental hospital there. I had to go to Grand Junction to find the right place: a facility called Oasis Clubhouse where outpatients of the Colorado Mental Health System meet on a daily basis. The Clubhouse provided an ideal environment in which to pursue this project since the Clubhouse is a rather autonomous institution and a perfect arena for open dialogue. During initial meetings with members I spoke about Sophoclean tragedy and the idea of reenacting Oedipus Rex in a ghost town in Aspen. Since most of the people were familiar with the history of the area and with myths of the West, the idea generated a great deal of enthusiasm from the very beginning. Aaron Sheley, a young filmmaker and cinephile from L.A and a member of the Oasis Clubhouse living with mental illness, became the co-writer of the script. Aaron’s knowledge of film history and culture was instrumental for this project. He became an interlocutor for the other members in the process of building the narrative structure that supported the project. The decision to choose him as co-script writer as well as the process of casting actors was based, as in any other film, on the particular roles certain individuals could take on in the work. Many ideas developed while
reviewing my collection of over 50 westerns films on DVD, starting with the founding father John Ford, then Budd Boetticher, Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, Zinnemann’s High Noon, Anthony Mann, Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone and others. I was really surprise to see how many of these films were familiar to the member of the Oasis Clubhouse. As a foreign living in New York I often forget to what extent the myth of the West is present in that part of the country. We also watched Passolini’s Edipo Rei together.

The making of the film was very interesting because the members of the cast had to move from Grand Junction to Aspen for one week; they basically spent every day in Ashcroft, which is a mining ghost town from the late 19th century. The natural landscape and the confrontation between the human subject and that landscape are fundamental themes of the Western. Filming in a deserted town lost in a Valley outside Aspen was a truly unique experience. Cell phones did not work there, it was almost impossible to keep the coffee warm, and there was no electricity or running water. This environment imposed a particular psychological mood upon the members of the Clubhouse that ultimately helped them to reconstruct the Oedipus myth. The actors spent the entire day in costumes, there were horses on location, and we would meet with the actors at the town’s original bar that had been refurbished for the film. There were moments when reality and fiction collided and we felt like ghosts of the town perpetually reenacting our past lives.

MF& CL: What specific set of ideas do you want to foreground when you set up this basic formal friction between Noh Theatre and Westerns?

JT: When I first traveled to Japan in 2001, I became very interested in the tradition of Noh theatre, one of the oldest forms of theatre in the world that is still performed today with only minor adaptations. I have been researching the genre since then, particularly the treatises of Zeami that are among the best texts on aesthetics I’ve ever read.

The fact that the stories in Noh plays are about ghosts is an ideal ‘connector’ to talk about memory, and obviously the mask is the fundamental element in Noh representation. The presence of masks in my own work is not new. We used them in La Batalla de Mexico, a video that documents a fictitious militia of patients in a psychiatric hospital in Mexico City who take over the hospital armed with machine guns and wearing camouflage uniforms and Zapatista style ski masks. One flew over the void in Tijuana also involved the use of animal masks. The mask is, of course, one of the most important elements of the carnival. But in the particular case of Oedipus Marshal it also referenced Greek tragedy. Since the point of departure was to re-enact the Oedipus play, the mask became an important component of the work.

The mask ties together various references: Greek myth, the myth of the American West and mental illness. Also, we should not forget that persona means mask. I recently presented the film in Mexico and someone in the audience asked why, in this piece, mental illness is not “faced” (repeating the old equation: physiognomy equals diagnosis). Pablo Sigg responded brilliantly: “Madness is masked!” There is a sense of catharsis at the very end of the film at the moment in which the actors finally reveal their faces.

MF& CL: Can you talk about the transition from documentary video to fictional filmmaking? Your work obviously problematizes such clear cut distinctions and I’m curious to know to what extent Oedipus Marshal seems to be the logical development of a long term-investigation of psychiatric practice and identity formation.

JT: I never believed in a clear distinction between documentary and fiction; perhaps the best answer to the question of genre is provided by Borges, who argued that literary genres do not exist and that it is the responsibility of the reader to decide whether to read Don Quixote as a detective novel or as an essay.

Film and video are always documentary in the sense that they constitute evidence of the real; at the same time the fictional element in any visual representation must be recognized. It is very important for me to work with non-professional actors—or ‘models’ as Bresson called them—because their lack of skills make the evidence of the real more present in the work. My previous work might be described as documentation of fictional re-enactments that take place within the mental institution.

The theatrical elements we use as props—costumes and masks—are related to the Carnival which is an important axis of my work. The use of the carnivalesque is related to its potential to create a collective experience that confuses the roles of actors and spectators, giving political agency to a community that is fragmented within the psychiatric institution. I have always been interested in the subversive element of transgression inherent to the festive celebration, even prior to reading Bakhtin, a writer who has been very influential in my thinking. My relationship to the carnival comes from my childhood: while growing up in Venezuela my father often took us to visit the mental hospital were he worked as a psychiatrist. Every year the staff and patients there organized a carnival with a parade, costumes, decorations, and a beauty contest. Almost everybody in the institution participated in the event. I have one very vivid memory of seeing patients and psychiatrists exchanging their respective uniforms. This experience is very significant to me, because it allowed me to see, from a very young age, this sort of symbolic interchange and role-playing as a model to transgress the notions of ‘normal’ and ‘pathological’ behavior and the power relations inherent to the psychiatric institution. -michiacevedo.blogspot.com/
zwischen zwei toden between two deaths

Where is the difference between the Maid of Orléans and a patient diagnosed with a schizophrenic psychosis? In the waning Middle Ages, the French farmer’s daughter Joan of Arc claimed to have visions from God urging her to free her homeland from English domination. Provided with the king’s army, she then proceeded to expel the English from Orléans. (Later, of course, when she was no longer needed, she was executed for heresy). People with schizophrenic disorders usually hear voices, too, but unlike Joan of Arc, they don’t become heroes of history.
However, the question with which we began has perhaps been wrongly posed. Our inclination to prove that Joan of Arc did not really hear the voice of God, but rather suffered from delusions does not hit the crux of a story that is based primarily on a woman’s emancipation from her designated social role. Javier Téllez has thus conceived another scenario by searching for similarities between Joan of Arc and the schizophrenic. Over the course of several weeks, the artist engaged intensively with several patients from a women’s psychiatric clinic in Sydney, Australia. The women offered insight into their illnesses and sensibilities in front of the camera. Then, together with the artist, they restaged the famous silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) by Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer. The women in the film replaced the original text with their own ideas and wordings in order to be able to identify with Joan of Arc, who then stood both as an example of and as a point of reference for their own suffering.
Neurotic disorders are more easily tolerated in modern society than psychotic disorders because, to greatly simplify the situation, neurotics are aware of their disorder and able to reflect upon it. People suffering from psychoses, in contrast, are incapable of distinguishing their inner world (e.g., hearing voices) from the surrounding reality, and subsequently come to regard the outer world as hostile. Thus unable to take responsibility for itself, the ill subject feels like a victim of the outside world and restricts its activity to passive suffering. According to Sigmund Freud, neurosis can be understood as an illness of guilt. However, psychosis, along with depression, are seen as illnesses of responsibility, in which feelings of inadequacy dominate over those of guilt, or in which feelings of guilt are experienced as a kind of inadequacy (see Alain Ehrenberg’s work). Our current understanding of “mental health” interweaves physical health and social behavior. Those no longer capable of or willing to engage in “normal” social behavior are categorized as ill. They are considered incapable of conforming their emotions and morality to the expectations of others. Téllez’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Rozelle Hospital) observes women who could not meet the requirements of their social environment and who consequently had to renounce their own social needs. Their depression is a symptom of their failure in the world.
By echoing Joan of Arc’s story, Téllez’s work also establishes a connection with society’s inability to deal with the needs and fears of the individual. As a consequence, individuals are tacitly ostracized. The depressions from which all patients suffer, regardless of their different diagnoses, can be understood symbolically as their capitulation to the ever increasing requirements of a world that demands, first and foremost, that we be responsible, flexible, active, and socially competent.


Javier Téllez
La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (Rozelle Hospital, Sydney), 2004
two channel projection
video stills from Twelve and a Marionette and La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc

Artaud’s Cave, 2012
Installation, cave elements and one single-channel film projection
Ed. of 6 of La Conquista De México, 16:9, color, sound, 45 min.

Inspired by Antonin Artaud‘s legendary 1936 trip to Mexico and his text 'The Conquest of Mexico' (1934), - the first play for his Theater of Cruetly, Javier Téllez collaborated with outpatients of the Fray Bernardino Psychiatric Hospital in Mexico City for this film. The patients, who are both co-writers of the script and act as the entire film cast, act in the film as fictional inmates of the hospital and as characters from Mexican history. The ancient ruler Moctezuma appears, along with the conqueror Hernan Cortés and his translator and lover La Malinche, as well as the French poet and playwright Antonin Artaud. Shot in an empty ward of the hospital and the Simón Bolivar Theatre, Xochimilco, Teotihuacan and the pyramids of Cantona, The Conquest of Mexico is a film that obliterates the boundaries between fact and fiction, documentary and story, observation and participation.

Exhibition view:
dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel 2012
Photo: Thomas Strub   Images
Rotations (Prometheus and Zwitter), 2011

Film installation with two 35 mm film projections, no sound, color, 7 min.
Ed. of 5 + 2 AP

Two sculptures are seen rotating side by side. One is Prometheus (1937) by Arno Breker, a monumental male figure representing the mythological hero grasping a torch. The other is Weib und Mann oder Adam und Eva, also known as “Zwitter” (1920) by Karl Genzel, a small wooden figure depicting a hermaphrodite that holds a clock in its hand. Arno Breker’s bronze statue Prometheus was one of the centerpieces of the “Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung”, an exhibition organized in Munich by the National Socialists in 1937. Karl Genzel’s statue was shown close-by at its counterpart exhibition “Entartete Kunst”; a show aimed at inflaming public opinion against modern art by displaying avant-garde pieces next to art by psychiatric patients. Karl Genzel had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was a patient at the asylum in Eickeborn. The two sculptures and the two artists could not have been treated more differently. It is in the film installation that the two meet now at eye level.

Exhibition view:
"TRACK", Various locations in Ghent, Ghent, 2012
Photo: Dirk Pauwels 
O Rinoceronte de Dürer (Dürer's Rhinoceros), 2010
Super 16mm film transferred to high-definition video, color, sound,
Duration 41'10 min.,
Portuguese with English subtitles
Ed. of 5 (+ 2 AP)

O Rinoceronte de Dürer (Dürer‘s Rhinoceronte), filmed in the panopticon of the Miguel Bombarda Hospital, Lisbon, takes its cue from Portuguese history. The king of Portugal Dom Manuel I. received the gift of a live rhinoceros in 1513. At the time, the animal was practically unknown in Europe. An account of the creature soon reached Nuremberg, inspiring the German artist Albrecht Dürer to depict the rhinoceros in his famous woodcut print, relying solely on the accounts relayed to him.
For this film, Javier Téllez worked with psychiatric patients, specifically from the day ward, who are the main actors. The film centers around the presence of an embalmed rhinoceros. This animal is pulled around the circular structure of the panopticon day and night, much to the amazement of the men and women who inhabit the cell-rooms.
Working with mental patients has been a constant feature in Javier Téllez' work. He has a familiarity and proximity with the world of mental illness, which allows him to create situations and art works in which patients appear with a grandeur and dignity that goes beyond the stereotypical image of persons with psychiatric problems. By transforming them into central characters the artist obliges us as spectators to look closely at their faces, to stare at them and ask to ourselves whether they are in fact really so very different from us. 
Beulah, 2008
Plywood, chipboard, vespa tires, bricks, cement, mannequin torso, coat fabric, borsalino hats, rope
253 x 284.5 x 124 cm (99 5/8 x 112 x 48 7/8 inch)

This work has been created by the artist in connection with the film "Letter on the Blind, for the Use of Those Who See", 2007. Inspired loosely by the parable of the blind men and the elephant - in which six blind men each touch a different part of an elephant and obtain different notions of what an elephant is - Téllez focuses not on the animal but on the spoken testimonies about the experience of blindness, given by the six sight-impaired who, in an almost ceremonial procedure recorded by the film, feel an elephant for the first time.
He realized the sculpture after the different descriptions of the animal by the blinds in the above mentioned film. One of them compares the skin with a warm car tyre, another one with a furry sofa cover and a third person with the thick skin of a lizard. According to these specifications, the artist creates an elephant which illustrates how the six blind persons perceive the animal.
El león de Caracas, 2002
164 x 104.5 cm (64 5/8 x 41 1/8 inch), framed
Ed. of 5 + 1 AP + 1 EP

The work of Javier Téllez has, over the years, dealt with institutional dynamics, mental illness as a marginal condition, and borderline collective and individual behaviour. His video installation, El León de Caracas ‘documents’ six police officers of the Policía Metropolitana de Caracas, carrying a stuffed lion down the steps of one of Caracas’ most dangerous shantytowns.
The ‘procession’ ends at the foot of the hill when the lion is set down for the inhabitants of the barrio to admire, in a way that recalls religious processions in which statues of Christ, the Virgin Mary, or saints are paraded throughout the city during Holy Week. By recontextualizing the practice and staging this irrational act within the space of the shantytown (in other words the peripheral space of marginality, instead of the established space of the city and its monuments and squares); by substituting the saint for a dissected animal, the “king of the jungle” but also the emblem of the city; and by having the enforcers of law and order perform the task, Téllez inverts a set of social and political conventions implied in the concepts of state, religion, and citizenship. 
One flew over the Void (Bala perdida), 2005
Single channel video projection, 11.30 min., color, sound, 4:3, NTSC
Ed. of 8 (+ 2 AP + 1 EP)

Made for inSite_05 in San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico, One Flew Over the Void (Bala Perdida) (2005) documents Téllez’s „self-organized circus“ of patients from Mexicali’s CESAM mental health center, who, wearing animal masks and carrying handmade signs, walked in protest against general views on mental illness in todays’s society. The procession culminated at the site of a performance in which human cannonball David Smith was shot over the Mexico-U.S.border to critique current immigration policy. Combining two disparate political concerns, Téllez’s film takes issue with large notions of exclusion. Bright color footage of patients marching and playing horns, interspersed with shots of Smith’s audience, suggest humor and celebration as healing alternatives to isolation, segregation, and racism. In the last sequence, entitled „Circus Performers“, participants remove their masks for individual facial close-ups, the pleasure they experienced from the event obvious.
(Trinie Dalton, „Javier Téllez“ in: Whitney Biennial 2008, Exhibition Catalogue, Whitney 2008, p.238)
La Batalla de Mexico (Hospital Fray Bernardino Alvarez), 2004
Single channel projection, video installation, 6 cardboard posters, 4 cloth banners, 1 red flag, 15 buckets filled with cement (not included)
Video transferred to DVD, 9.09 min., color, sound
Ed. of 5 (+ 1 AP + 1 EP)

In the video La Batalla de México (2004), a fictious patient-militia takes over a psychiatric hospital in Mexico City, their faces concealed by ski masks.

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) is an armed Mexican military-political leftist group. His inspiration is the Zapatista politics, Marxism and libertarian socialism, and its military structure is the guerrillas. The group takes its name from Emiliano Zapata, the agrarian reformer and commander of the Liberation Army of the South during the Mexican Revolution. The group came to light in the Mexican state of Chiapas on January 1, 1994 when a group of hooded and armed Indians occupied various municipal seats on the same day it was enforced the Free Trade in North America. Their social base is mostly rural indigenous Mayan people. Their main spokesperson is Subcomandante Marcos. 
A Meditation upon a Broomstick (Jonathan Swift Clinic Dublin), 2003
Video installation, 1 projection on black board, matt black acrylic paint on wood, framed (varnished timber), board dimension 150 x 200 cm - 300 x 400 cm (3x4 ratio), 27'42'', color, no sound
Blackboard approx. 3 x 4 m
Ed. of 5 + 1 AP + 1 EP

For this video installation the artist worked with amateur actors and patients from the Jonathan Swift Clinic in Dublin. In the film they are communicating with each other by writing short dialogues on the black board on various subjects such as „Psychiatrist & Patient“ or „God & Patient“.

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