The Kunstverein Braunschweig is presenting the first European institutional solo exhibition of the New York artist Javier Téllez (born 1969 in Venezuela). Along with installations, the Kunstverein is presenting Téllez’s four most important films: La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Rozelle Hospital, Sydney) (2004), Oedipus Marshall (2006), Letter on the Blind (For the Use of Those Who See) (2007) as well as his most recent production Caligari and the Sleepwalker (2008).
Javier Téllez, who has already participated in numerous international group exhibitions such as the Biennales in Sao Paulo (1998), Gwanju (2000), Venice (2001 und 2003), Sydney (2003), the Whitney Biennale (2008) and, finally, Manifesta 7, tears with his work that oscillates between fiction and documentation at accustomed socio-cultural boundaries and reinterprets classic material from the stage and screen.
In his films, the artist questions that what we understand by emotional and physical “normality.” As the son of two psychiatrists, Téllez came into contact with psychiatric facilities at a young age. “When I started visiting museums at that time, I noticed quite a few similarities between the typologies of both kinds of institutions. Hygienically pure spaces, long corridors, strained styles and the weight of architecture.(...) Both institutions are emblematic representations of authority that rely upon classifications such as ‘normal’ versus ‘pathological’ and ‘inclusive’ versus ‘exclusive’.”
La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Rozelle Hospital, Sydney) (2004) is regarded as Téllez’s pathbreaking film production. The reworked silent film Jeanne d’Arc (1928) and the film Twelve and a Marionette, which was shot in psychiatric clinic, are shown in a double projection. Twelve women speak in very different fashions about the institutional dealing with their illnesses (depression, schizophrenia). The juxtaposed projections of Jeanne d’Arc—who was stigmatized in her day as a possessed person and is now recognized as a misunderstood visionary and magnificent national hero—place the patients in a new perspective. These films demand with great urgency a rethinking of the notions of healthy and ill, normal and abnormal.
In the film Oedipus Marshall (2006), Téllez stages Sophocles’ classic tragedy, Oedipus Rex, with Western costumes and Japanese masks. An abandoned gold mining town in Colorado served as the backdrop. Using interchangeable elements from our collective memory, a film came about which takes up and simultaneously breaks down familiar things. The masks and maskings in Téllez’s films introduce Meta levels. As ambivalent elements, they conceal or demystify them; they destabilize personality boundaries, but also symbolize the facility of psychologically ill persons for mimicry.
Letter on the Blind (For the Use of Those Who See) (2007) draws on the eponymous classic by Diderot and the Buddhist parable of the blind persons and the elephant. In the story, the blind persons each feel only one part of the elephant’s body and describe it. Accordingly, their descriptions of one and the same animal are remarkably different. The parable makes us aware of the fact that “reality” is by no means an objectively appraisable constant, but defined by our own perception instead. Téllez stages the encounter of the six blind New Yorkers with the elephant in a disused swimming pool. The distinctly individual voices of the protagonists enable the senses of taste, hearing, and smelling to come to the fore, while the poetic, black and white images are silently scaled back.
His most recent film, Caligari and the Sleepwalker (2008), is based on the 1919 Expressionist silent film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In Telléz’s interpretation, Dr. Caligari carries out a kind of therapeutic conversation with Cesare, “the alien from the slave star,” who has been in a kind on somnambulist state for years and can only communicate by means of panels of slate. The mixture of layers of reality, changes of identity, and polyphony are the themes that Téllez’s films often deal with contentually, but also realize in terms of representational techniques. By selecting the Einstein Tower— the architect Erich Mendelsohn’s icon of Expressionist architecture in Potsdam—as the site of the film, he additionally points to an epoch of art and film history that dealt for the first time with pathological disturbances and drew inspiration from it.