– Summer 2008

El sueno de la razon produce monstruos: On the Work of Javier Téllez

Michèle Faguet

Javier Téllez, La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (Rozelle Hospital), 2004, 2-channel video projection, exhbition view Power Plant, Toronto, 2005-06.

Javier Téllez, La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (Rozelle Hospital), 2004, 2-channel video projection, exhbition view Power Plant, Toronto, 2005-06.

Comissioned for "Emotion and Reason", Biennale of Sydney, Sydney, 2004. Courtesy the artist & Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich.

Javier Téllez spent his childhood in close proximity to pathological behaviour. Both of his parents were psychiatrists, and his father received patients in the same room where he would play as a child. This familiarity would eventually develop into a prolific body of work around a central goal the articulation of a position of alterity and a strategy to give visibility to peripheral or neglected communities of individuals who live outside the parameters of a normal or healthy society. From an early age, Téllez often visited art museums and was struck by the hygienic spaces (and) enforced silence that reminded him of the hospital in which his father worked.2 Téllez developed this influence into an unorthodox artistic practice that simultaneously critiques the psychiatric institution and the art museum. For Tellez, both institutions are symbolic representations of authority, founded on taxonomies based on the normal and the pathological, inclusion and exclusion.3

Téllez is perhaps best known for his collaborative films and performances with patients of psychiatric institutions - institutions that in his work are often situated in peripheral contexts where mental illness is directly tied to social class, reserved for the poor and underprivileged. This double marginality betrays an interest in the conflation of mental illness with a lack of productivity: while institutionalisation precludes participation in a capitalist system of production, psychotropic therapy seems to be an ever more pervasive manner of numbing symptoms so as to allow individuals, both within and outside of the mental institution, to assimilate to the norms and behaviours required for participating in this system. The work that best exemplifies this situation of extreme marginality is Choreutics (2001),

  1. This is the title of a plate from Francisco Goyas Caprichos series (1803), which can be translated as The sleep of reason produces monsters.

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

  3. Ibid.

  4. Donald C. Drake, The Curse of San Luis, The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, 26 August 1984. Also available at http://www.philly.com/inquirer/online_extras/THE_CURSE_OF_SAN_LUIS.html (last accessed on 20 February 2008).

  5. Researcher Nancy Wexler has confirmed the existence of Justo Antonio Doria, the Spanish sailor to which the spreading of the disease has been attributed, but has found no evidence of Huntington's in his children's death certificates. She only has been able to trace the disease back to two Venezuelans in the 1830s, but suspects the gene originated in Europe. See D.C. Drake, 'The Curse of San Luis', op. cit.

  6. See Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Madness in the Age of Reason (trans. Richard Howard), New York: Vintage Books, 1973, pp.38-64.

  7. Carl Theodor Dreyer, quoted by Jean Drum and Dale D. Drum, My Only Great Passion: The Life and Films of Carl Th. Dreyer, Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2000, p.138.

  8. See Michael Koller, 'La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc', Senses of Cinema, Issue 5, April 2000. Falconetti's daughter stated that the reason her mother hadn't made other films was because she believed the arduous physical conditions she had to endure in the making of La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc were typical of film-making. Available at http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/cteq/00/5/passion.html (last accessed on 20 February 2008).

  9. Nigel Reynolds, 'Film That Sent Björk Mad Wins Palme d'Or', The Daily Telegraph, 22 May 2000. Also available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/htmlContent.jhtml?html=/archive/2000/05/22/wcan22.html (last accessed on 15 February 2008).

  10. M. Faguet and C. Lehyt, 'Madness Is the Language of the Excluded', op. cit., pp.27-28.

  11. Ibid., p.29.

  12. Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses, London and New York: Routledge, 1993, p.8.

  13. Roger Caillois, Mimicry and Legendary Psychaesthenia, October, vol.31, Winter 1984, p.17-32.

  14. M. Faguet and C. Lehyt, 'Madness Is the Language of the Excluded', op. cit., p.27.

  15. One of the women called Wart says: I really hate the term consumer because thats what they call us people with the mental illness. According to the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors site, 'consumer' is the term most frequently applied to a person who receives mental health services. The term is sometimes used more generically to refer to anyone who has a diagnosis of mental illness. Not all persons with mental illness accept this terminology, however. Glossary, National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, available at http://www.nasmhpd.org/glossary.cfm (last accessed on 21 February 2008).

  16. See Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980, New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.

  17. Ivo Mesquita and Viviana Kuri Haddad (ed.), Dilogos Impertinentes. Quinto Simposio Internacional de Teora sobre Arte Contemporneo, Mexico: Editorial Patronato de Arte Contemporneo A.C., 2007, p.244.

  18. M. Faguet and C. Lehyt, 'Madness Is the Language of the Excluded', op. cit., p.30.

  19. In 'Javier Téllez: Institutionalized Aesthetics', Flash Art, no.225, July/September 2002, p.96. Raul Zamudio discusses Téllez's use of the carnivalesque in relation to Hélio Oiticias series of parangolás or capes, publicly worn by samba dancers at the 1965 exhibition Opinio 65 at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro. According to Anna Dezeuze, The irruption of the poor into the bourgeois atmosphere of the museum caused such a scandal that the director had them evicted. A. Dezeuze, Tactile Dematerialization, Sensory Politics: Hélio Oiticica's Parangolás, Art Journal, Summer 2004, p.59.

  20. The title makes reference to Ken Kesey's 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, based on his own experience of working in a psychiatric institution.

  21. M. Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity, op. cit., p.33.