Javier Téllez

Article Works Projects Images
exclusion, memory, outsider, perception, power, transgression
Visual Arts (Film, video art)
America, North, America, South
United States of America, Venezuela
created on:
November 4, 2008
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Javier  Téllez
Javier Téllez. Courtesy of Hitomi Iwasaki


The Artist´s Collaborators

"Patients", says Javier Téllez, "are the better interpreters. They are very good at imitating the language of psychiatrists and clinic staff. This ability is very rare on the other side. The language of the institutions is not in a position to imitate those who are the objects of their dominant discourse."
Language is an instrument of power between doctors and patients. Cancelling out this power and reversing the hierarchical order is one of the strategies which Javier Téllez pursues in his films. His projects usually involve close contact with people who would otherwise be excluded from normal participation in society. He has worked with mentally ill people (2004 in Sidney "La Passion de Jeanne d`Arc ", 2005 in Mexico "One Flew over the Void", 2008 in Berlin "Caligari und der Schlafwandler /Caligari and the Sleepwalker), with blind people (2007 in New York "Letter on the Blind For the Use of Those Who See") and with families in Venezuela, who have suffered for years from Huntington´s Chorea, also called St. Vitus´ Dance (2001 "Choreutics").

Javier Téllez´ films and projects are always an act of empathy but they go well beyond the helpless sympathy and pity which so often define the relationship between functioning parts of society and its marginalised fringe groups. They offer their protagonists a different kind of representation and advocacy, one which allows them to view themselves in a different way. In that sense he is right to say that the "most important element is the collaboration". And his works quickly refute the possible suspicion that he exploits his protagonists in a voyeuristic manner.

His film "Caligari und der Schlafwandler /Caligari and the Sleepwalker" was commissioned by the House of World Cultures for the exhibition "Rational / Irrational" in 2008 in Berlin. The title is a reference to the famous expressionist silent film "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (Director: Robert Wiene, Producer: Erich Pommer, 1919), the first film in history about a psychiatric institution, as Javier Téllez emphasises. Dr. Caligari appears as a hypnotist in Téllez´ film, too, but in contrast to the original Caligari, who works with Cesare, the "somnambulist from the slave planet", this film does not centre on a crime. Téllez filled the roles in the film with patients from a clinic in the Berlin district of Neukölln, who are also shown on the screen as an audience watching the film in a big cinema. From off-screen, they commentate the conditions and distorted perceptions of their protagonists and relate to them. "When the anxiety comes, it suddenly feels like I´m in the wrong movie", explains the actor who plays Caligari, using a very popular German saying which links the unconscious and the cinematic in a remarkable way.

Téllez chose the Einsteinturm (Einstein Tower) in Potsdam, built by Erich Mendelsohn and an icon of expressionist architecture, for his location. Thus, his film also highlights the connection between an artistic period which drew inspiration from pathologised distortions of perception and, after the First World War, used them to describe a world out of joint. Téllez´ camera work and composition, however, abstain from imitating expressionism in any way.

This interest in the important issue of how a society treats its outsiders is a result of the artist´s own biography. Born in 1969 in Valencia (Venezuela), his parents were both psychiatrists. He can remember his father receiving patients at home or taking him to hospitals: "And I think that eventually led to a dissolution of what I perceived as "normal" and what I saw as "pathological". But he says he was also strongly influenced by the fact that his father was a highly educated man, and that "there were more books in his library than in the state library".

Indeed, his works are full of educated middle-class references to the history of art, literature, philosophy and film. This unusual treatment of explosive issues is so obviously present that it is easy to forget to consider the forms he uses. It is not least artistic curiosity which drives him. For with every work, he explores aesthetic functions and analyses film history and the conditions under which it was received. This examination of the medium takes place in the description of the stories and the composition of the images which themselves conduct a cineastic metadiscourse.

Téllez´ works are often received as critical of the institutions in which his protagonists find themselves. But such a reading overlooks the fact that he does not wish to question their necessity in any way. What interests him first and foremost is the language and the acting abilities of the people who have become patients: he learns and acquires something from them which he could not otherwise find.

This can be illustrated especially clearly with the video installation "Letter on the Blind For the Use of Those Who See", which refers to an eponymous story by Diderot. In this tale, blind people touch parts of an elephant and then give the most diverse descriptions of it. The classic interpretation of the story focuses on the relativisation of knowledge and the unreliability of subjective perception. In Téllez’ film, however, he finds in the five blind men and women an enriching spectrum of perception through the senses of touch, smell and hearing. The film was made at a derelict swimming pool complex in the New York district of Williamsburg and its images, as well as telling the story, also convey an element of the social demise of a neighbourhood.

Close-ups of the elephant, on the other hand, transform the animal´s body into an almost abstract field of surfaces. Téllez contrasts these film images with sculptures, which he has made using the different descriptions given by the blind people, translating their respective tactile recognitions into a different medium. Téllez was invited to show this work at the 2008 Whitney Biennial in New York and he also exhibited it at the Peter Kilchmann gallery in Zurich.

Javier Téllez, who now lives in New York, has his films and installations displayed since the late 1990s at solo shows, numerous biennials and thematic exhibitions around the world. His productions fit in with the trends of restaging and re-acting, and their re-evaluation of relationships with the past, their questioning of collective memory, their re-reading of once seminal moments of art and intellectual history. In this sense, Téllez´ work is highly ambitious and requires the observer to participate in this demanding, almost elitist "canon". This may not conform well with the desire to work mainly with socially disadvantaged people. But it is exactly this contradiction which makes tangible the border which Javier Téllez has so passionately devoted himself to overcoming.
Author: Katrin Bettina Müller


Group Exhibitions (Selected)

200816th Biennale of Sydney, Sydney, cur. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Australia / Amateurs, CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, cur. Ralph Rugoff, USA / Mimétisme, Extra City – Center for Contemporary Art, Antwerp, cur. Anselm Franke, Belgium / Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA / Mimétisme, Extra City, Antwerp, Belgium / Manifesta7, Palazzo delle Poste, Trentino, Italy / Sydney Biennial, Sydney, Australia / 2007 2nd Moscow Bienniale of Contemporary Art, Moscow, Russia / Between two Deaths, ZKM, Karlsruhe, Germany / Espacio 414, Coleccion Berezvidin, San Juan, Puerto Rico / Doppelgänger, MARCO, Vigo, Spain / CE3, MCA, Sydney, Australia / 2006 Limites - Estrecho Dudoso, ARS TEOR/éTica, San José Norte, Costa Rica / First Architecture, Art and Landscape Biennial of the Canaries, Canaries / postEr, Hydra School Project, Hydra, Greece / On Mobility II, De Appel, Amsterdam, The Netherlands / Die Kunst erlöst uns von gar nichts, ACC Weimar, Weimar, Germany / Capital Culture, prometeogallery di Ida Pisani, Milano, Italy / Dark Places, Santa Monica Museum of Art, Los Angeles, USA / When Artists Say We, Artists Space, New York, USA / 2005 Un Nuevo y Bravo Mundo”, Sala de Alcalá, Madrid, Spain / T1 Pantagruel Syndrome”, Castello di Rivoli, Museo d´ Arte Contemporanea, Turin, Italy / InSite_05, San Diego/Tijuana, USA/Mexico / Biennale 2, Section: Acción Directa, Prague, Czech Republic / Jump Cuts – Venezuelan Contemporary Art”, Americas Society, New York , USA / 2004 Settlements, Musée dąArt Moderne, Saint-Etienne, France / Emotion Eins, Fankfurter Kunstverein, Frankfurt, Germany / ARCO, Ziegler Modern & Contemporary, Madrid, Spain/ Produciendo Realidad, Prometeo Associazione per ląarte contemporanea, Lucca, Italy / Biennale of Sydney, Sydney, Australia / On Reason and Emotion, Biennale of Sydney, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia / Emotion eins, Frankfurter Kunstverein, Frankfurt am Main, Germany / 2003 Dreamscapes, Deutsche Bank, New York, USA / Biennale di Venezia, Venice, Italy / Estaçăo bienal, Fortaleza , Brasil / Royal Hibernian Gallery, Dublin, Ireland / Surveillance, Moore space, Miami Beach, Miami, USA / Serge Ziegler Galerie in collaboration with griedervonputtkamer, Berlin, USA / 2002 Bienal Iberoamericana de Lima, Lima Biennial, Lima, Peru / Ideal House, Gallery 400, University of Illinois, Chicago, USA / 2001 Yokohama Triennale, Yokohama, Japan / Loop – Alles auf Anfang, Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, Munich, Germany / 2000 Kwangju Biennale, Kwangju, South Korea / Greater New York: New Art in New York, P.S.1 Museums and MOMA, New York, USA

Solo Exhibitions (Selected)

2008 Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich, Switzerland / 2007 Production-in-Residence-program, Baltic Art Centre, Visby, Sweden / Oedipus Marshal, Galerie Figge von Rosen, Cologne, Germany / 2006 Distinguished Artist in Residence: Javier Téllez, Aspen Art Museum, Aspen, USA / La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Rozelle Hospital), Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich, Switzerland / 2005 La Passion de Jeanne d´Arc (Rozelle Hospital), The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto, Canada / S-t-e-r-e-o-v-i-e-w, Bronx Museum of the Arts, Bronx, New York, USA / Musée dąArt Moderne, Saint-Etienne, France / Limmerick Art Gallery, Dublin, Ireland / 2004 Un artista del hambre, Museo d´Arte Carrillo Gil, Mexico City, Mexico / La Galerie Ghislaine Hussenot a le plaisir d´invite la Serge Ziegler Galerie, Zurich, Switzerland / A Hunger Artist, Museo Carrillo Gil, Mexico City, Mexico / 2002 You Are Here, Art Basel Miami Beach, Statements, Serge Ziegler Galerie, Zurich, Switzerland / A Hunger Artist, Sala Mendoza, Caracas, Venezuela / Alpha 60 (The Mind-Body Problem), White Box, New York, USA / 2001 LC4/R-Machine, Art Unlimited, Serge Ziegler Galerie, Basel, Switzerland / Bedlam, Rufino Tamayo, Mexico City, Mexico / La Panaderia, Mexico City, Mexico / 2000 Bounced, Serge Ziegler Galerie, Zurich, Switzerland


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.

Rational / Irrational

(08 November 08 - 11 January 09)
Caligari and the Sleepwalker
Caligari and the Sleepwalker
Caligari and the Sleepwalker