– Summer 2008

Acting Naturally: The Face and the Mask

Javier Téllez, One Flew Over the Void (Bala Perdida), 2005, single-channel video projection, colour, sound, 11min 30sec, still.

Javier Téllez, One Flew Over the Void (Bala Perdida), 2005, single-channel video projection, colour, sound, 11min 30sec, still.

Commissioned for inSite_05 San Diego, California, and Tijuana, Mexico, 2005. Courtesy the artist & Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich.

In a 2006 interview, Javier Téllez spoke about his relationship to the participants in his performances and videos: '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 access the other"'.1 Téllez's work is made in collaboration with individuals from marginalised segments of society the mentally or physically ill, and the economically or politically disenfranchised and foregrounds the problem of representation and self-representation within the context of art and medical institutions. He works with these self-selected groups in re-stagings of popular myths, or casts them in rituals and parades that he then films in ways that allow the work to slide easily between the categories of participatory events and documented performance. His practice identifies and makes a move to reverse a number of sociological and formal categories - 'marginalised' and 'dominant', 'being' and 'communicating', and, most importantly, 'representation' and 'performance' - honing its focus on the status of the participants in the pieces and on the shifting relationship between their interiority and external expression.

Téllez's work makes frequent allusions to circuses, carnivals or pagan and religious rituals, both by mimicking such events and by referencing their motifs. In El léon de Caracas (2002) a group of policemen bring a taxidermied lion down a slum-covered hillside, carrying it as if it were a religious icon. Téllez's contribution to this years Whitney Biennial, Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See (2007), looked at an elephant from the position of the visually impaired. Inspired loosely by the parable of

  1. Michèle Faguet and Cristóbal Lehyt, 'Madness Is the Language of the Excluded: An Interview with Javier Téllez', C Magazine, no.92, Winter 2006, pp.27-28.

  2. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (trans. Helene Iswolsky), Bloomington: Indianapolis University Press, 1984, p.10.

  3. Ibid, p.7.

  4. Robert Bresson, Notes sur le cinématographe, Paris: Gallimard, 1988, p.87. Translation the author's.

  5. Téllez's work suggests that he is interested in mental illness in its relation to forms of marginalisation, the correlation between the notions of illness, pathology and the norm, and the analogies between the language of the mental institution and that of the art institution. In this essay I am focusing on the face of the mentally ill as employed in his work, and not addressing the differences in symptoms that varying types of mental illness give occasion to.

  6. In Dušan Makevejevs WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) the comments of one of the doctors involved in the study of the body under sexual excitement form an example of the link people make between outward semblance and inner experience as well as of the idea of the mentally ill being defined by a lack: 'The body is the person ... you express who you are through your body as much as through your mind. You don't have a body, you are your body ... looking at a body, and sensing a body, we can know who the person is ... [if] his eyes are big, like that, and if that is the expression thats constant in his eyes, we know that this is a frightened person. Or you can have very sad eyes. Or the eyes can be cut out, blank, like in schizophrenia, like in a schizoid person, withdrawn. You don't see them, they don't reach out to you...'

  7. The resulting film is titled La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (Rozelle Hospital) (2004).

  8. Dreyer's original cut of La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, in neat symmetry, was found in a closet at a Norwegian mental hospital in 1981.