Javier Téllez (born 1969 in Valencia/Venezuela, lives and works in New York) is one of the most internationally reputed contemporary artists: his work has been shown at many exhibitions, including Manifesta 7 in Trento, last year’s Whitney Biennial and the Sydney Biennials in 2004 and 2008. Kunsthaus Baselland is proud to present three significant works of recent years in their full scope.
This is only the second time that his most recent film, Caligari and the Sleepwalker, is presented in an installation since it was first introduced in November 2008. Created for the exhibition Rational/Irrational at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, the film is a kind of collage from staged dialogues and documentary interviews with patients of the Vivantes Klinik in Berlin. As in almost all his films, Téllez pursues his long-standing interest in psychiatric institutions and the issues of allegedly normal and pathological behaviour. His parents being psychiatrists, Téllez was confronted with issues of societal exclusion and stigmatisation early on. The use of lay actors, including patients of psychiatric hospitals, is a recurrent feature in his films.
In a dialogue with the carefully casted lay actors, Téllez forges Caligari and the Sleepwalker into a cinematographic reference to the famous silent movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by Robert Wiene (1920). Wiene’s film is considered a milestone of expressionist filmmaking and as the first horror movie in history. In the film, a man in a dark suit tells his interlocutor the story of Dr. Caligari and his sleepwalking assistant Cesare, who is abused by his master for his murderous plans. At the end of the film it turns out, however, that the narrator is a patient at a psychiatric hospital and the presumed murderer is a doctor. The story, initially presented as serious fact, changes character and turns out to be hallucinatory. Téllez picks up on the doubts Wiene’s film arouses about which level of the story is reality and enhances them in his own version which is set against the backdrop of Erich Mendelsohn’s legendary Einstein Tower in Potsdam. Dr. Caligari (the actor-patient Hanki), for instance, presents Cesare (the actor-patient Henry Buttenberg) to a fairground audience as a strange sleepwalker from the Slave Star. Téllez has him write on a slate that “the whole Star [is] a psychiatric hospital”. In another place, Hanki, stepping out of his role as Dr. Caligari for a while, explains that he felt his psychosis as “being in a different film”. In Téllez’ film, levels of reality and fiction become inextricably entangled. He himself notes: “We could describe my practice as documentation of fictional rehearsals more than something that could either fit within the rigid categories of fiction and documentary” (From an unpublished interview with Mark Beasley). In the exhibition the film is presented in a ‘house’ made especially for this purpose, with the walls consisting of slate boards so that the visitors can interact with the installation by writing or drawing on the boards.
In 2004, Téllez worked with a group of female patients at the Rozelle Hospital in Sydney to produce the 2-channel video installation La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Rozelle Hospital) and Twelve and a Marionette, which — like Caligari and the Sleepwalker — makes reference to a historic movie. Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer in 1928, the silent movie La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc focuses mainly on the emotions of Jeanne d’Arc (played by the actress Maria Falconetti) — shown in close-ups of her face — in the conflict with the church inquisitors. Together with selected lay actor-patients, Téllez has created new intertitles: written with chalk on slate boards, the original sufferings of Jeanne d’Arc are turned into the story of a woman patient to be newly admitted to a clinic because of her delusions of being Jeanne d’Arc. The historical figure of Jeanne d’Arc and Dreyer’s cinematographic version of the historical story are integrated in the discourse on the institutionalisation processes of hospitals, psychiatric admission issues, medication issues and the like. The other film projected on the opposite wall, Twelve and a Marionette, tells the story of selected actor-patients and their individual experiences with disease and hospitals. The video installation is Téllez’ first work to explicitly expose and challenge the historical construction of women’s psychiatric diseases.
For the InSite Biennial, which is dedicated to art in the public sphere, Téllez developed One Flew Over the Void in 2005. In co-operation with patients of the CESAM State Psychiatric Hospital near Mexicali, the artist organised a kind of public show event. It included a patient march with signboards, various sketches, the trumpet solo of a traditional Mariachi ballad and — as the crowning highlight — a circus act where David Smith acted as a human cannonball and was shot across the border between Mexico and the USA. The piece works both as an event and as a film. The use of carnivalesque elements helps demystify complex hierarchical relationships, as the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin notes. He characterises the carnival as a “celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms and prohibitions” (in Rabelais and His World, Indianapolis University Press, 1984, p. 10). In One Flew Over the Void, the patients wear animal masks and use signboards to attract attention to their marginalised social existence. “La realidad entre la sanidad mental y la perdida de la razón es muy tenue” (The gap between mental health and the loss of reason is very narrow), is one of the statements on the signs. By flying over the border between Playas de Tijuan and the Border Field State Park in San Diego, Human Cannonball David Smith vicariously mastered the leap into mental and physical freedom on behalf of many others.
Text by Sabine Schaschl