He makes movies with patients from psychiatric institutions around the world. He once fired a human cannonball over the border from Tijuana. He was expelled from the school of Fine Arts in his second year. Javier Téllez is an artist with an intense gaze and hurried speech. “I identify myself with a radical thought,” he says.
Born in Valencia, Venezuela, in 1969, Téllez grew up among books, movies, and the mentally ill. His parents, both psychiatrists, had a library of 50,000 books in a house that also functioned as their office where patients would visit. His grandfather founded Capitol Cinema in Turmero in 1911, one of the first theaters in Venezuela. “I saw Jaws at least 20 times,” he recalls.
He started drawing, then made films and art installations — mental illness would be the central theme of his work. After spending some years in Madrid and Berlin, Téllez currently lives in New York City.
The San Francisco Art Institute is currently showing “Forbidden Games are in the Labyrinth,” an exhibit that consists of a 46-minute film, Dürer’s Rhinoceros (2010), shot at the Hospital Miguel Bombarda in Lisbon, Portugal, and a giant installation, “Chess” (2014), that substitutes traditional chess pieces with psychiatric implements. The film revolves around the panopticon, an architectural space composed of cells arranged in a circle that was adopted in psychiatric institutions to allow observation of the internees.
We caught up with Téllez to talk about his new exhibit, working with mentally ill patients, and shooting a human cannonball across the U.S.-Mexico border.
You’ve worked in psychiatric institutions in Mexico City, Berlin, Tijuana, Aspen… What is the process like of working with patients?
In doing the first installations related to mental health in the early 90s, I realized that I was not authorized to discuss the topic, that I needed the patients’ voice, the voice of those living with the mental illness in the psychiatric institutions. Otherwise it would be a projection of what I think about them. Instead of me representing them, I realized that it was better for them to participate.
It is a collaborative process. It is an open call to the patients of a mental institution to work on a film project. I come with an idea that changes completely when I get to know them and receive their feedback. In Aspen, Colorado, I was making a western version of the Ancient Greek tragedy “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles. From that starting point, we constructed a screenplay and they worked as co-authors of the screenplay — we discussed the ideas, we picked the most interesting ones, we developed a screenplay and then they acted it out. They are the main actors of all my films. In some cases I make a rough cut of the film, I show it to them and they make comments, which I film and then add to the film in a subsequent cut.
Tell us about the time you fired a human cannonball over the border from Tijuana.
It was in ’05. I called it “One Flew over the Void” (“Bala Perdida”), in reference to the film One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I used the geopolitical border between USA and México as a metaphor for another boundary, the boundary between the normal and the pathological. I reached out to the CESAM, the Mental Health Center of Baja California, and worked in collaboration with the patients. The patients organized a demonstration in Playas de Tijuana. They also collaborated in a publicity campaign for TV and radio. And they symbolically accompanied the human cannonball in the flight. He fell on a net on the other side of the border, la migra was waiting.
In 2012, you shot a project about the conquest of Mexico. Can you describe the creative process for that film?
It was a film I made in the Hospital Fray Bernardino Alvarez in Mexico City with psychiatric patients. It consisted of staging the text about the conquest of Mexico that the French author Antonin Artaud wrote in the ’30s. The film runs at three different times — Artaud’s stay in Mexico, the conquest of Mexico itself, Artaud’s piece, and the third is a fictionalization of the life of patients. They recreated life in a psychiatric ward. Like the piece that is being displayed here in San Francisco.
Do you consider your work to be political?
All work is political. Every art object has political content.
All work is political. Every art object has political content. I identify myself with a radical thought. I love what Swiss artist Paul Klee said: “Art does not reproduce the visible, it makes things visible.” Making something visible is a political concept. Working with those who are excluded, and somehow, incorporating them into the public discourse.
What do you mean when you refer to “constructions of difference” in your work?
Rational thinking is built on the idea of the irrational. There is no rationality without irrationality. Without sense there is no nonsense. You cannot understand one without the other. Man builds these excluding taxonomies. To reinforce the idea of civilization, the idea of the barbaric was necessary. I am interested in breaking those boundaries that are ideological constructs.
You make a living off your art. Any advice for young artists?
It is difficult for a young artist. The most important thing is to continue working. Trying, somehow, to work outside the market system, which can be very destructive for someone young. One of the most important things for an artist is to feel that you are part of a tradition, that there is a dialogue, even with the dead. I can talk to Pasolini. It is important to know your history.
“Forbidden Games are in the Labyrinth” is being shown at the San Francisco Art Institute until December 13. For more info visit sfai.edu.