Javier Téllez
Past event


Opening reception: Saturday, April 5, 6–9pm

Related Events: Staging four historical games from World Chess Championship 1972, Fischer vs. Spassky

Friday April 25, Game 1: Spassky 1 Fischer 0 (Nimzo-Indian) Friday May 9, Game 6: Fischer 1 Spassky 0 (QGD Tartakower) POSTPONED: Wednesday May 14, Game 11: Spassky 1 Fischer 0 (Sicilian Najdorf) Saturday May 31, Game 21: Spassky 0 Fischer 1 (Sicilian Taimanov) All games run 6:00pm - 8:30pm

A co-production between REDCAT and Kadist Art Foundation, San Francisco, Games are forbidden in the labyrinth is Javier Téllez’s first solo exhibition on the West Coast. The exhibition features newly commissioned installations Chess (2014); Three Chess Problems: Carroll 1872, Duchamp 1943, Nabokov 1951 (2014); and Téllez’s film Dürer’s Rhinoceros (2010) in which the artist reflects on the social and historical conception of the psychiatric institution: from architectural structures to technologies and treatments. 

Mostly known for his films, Téllez works in collaboration with psychiatric patients or people with disabilities as protagonists. Combining documentary with fictional narratives, often taken from literature and cinema, the artist questions the definitions and social prejudices established between the concepts of normality and pathology. The strategy of using invisible or socially marginalized characters thus becomes a way for the artist to contaminate certain totalitarian versions of history, giving voice to those who usually have none, reflecting a form of resistance to the normalization and homogenization that is characteristic of the dominant discourse.

The point of departure for the exhibition is the aforementioned film Dürer’s Rhinoceros, shot in the panopticon of the Miguel Bombarda psychiatric hospital in Lisbon. Operational until 2011, the facility was built in 1896 according to Jeremy Bentham’s model to house the criminally insane. Téllez asked patients from a day clinic to imagine stories of the former patients in the deserted old cells of the psychiatric hospital. This reconstruction of the everyday life of the institution is complemented by voice-overs reading texts from sources, such as Bentham’s letter presenting the Panoptic, Plato’s Cave, and Kafka’s short story The Burrow, that are concerned with different architectural models related to the power of surveillance.

The front part of the gallery, the foyer for the projected film, is a giant chess game (Chess), which functions as a collective space to develop a trompe l´oeil of the delirium. One can imagine this chess-asylum as an anthology of the artist’s research on the history of mental institutions, confronting symbolically the institution, the treatments and the patients in an ideological battle; mental illness is consciously presented as a socio-historical construct and not exclusively as a biological anomaly. The installation seeks to explain the role of medical treatments and psychological techniques as mechanisms of social control that conceal implicit socioeconomic contradictions.

The chessboard works as a theatrical mis-en-scene in which a script directs actors and established movements. Not surprisingly, the playwright Antonin Artaud (born Marseille, 1896, died Ivry-sur-Seine, 1948), who was institutionalized most of his life, is a recurring character in the work of Téllez, envisioning modern theater as similar to a game of chess with fixed rules: every play is like a game of chess or a game of psychological construction and gives us only a flat and depressed image of reality.1 The pieces on this chessboard are a series of assemblages that function as the main organs of a sterile machine. These pieces appear dissected, showing the core of its constitution, incorporating the narrative of objects, historical moments, and images from literature and film that have contributed to the treatment of mental illness. They further provide references to renowned patients such as Antonin Artaud himself, Unica Zürn and Adolf Wölfli, 20th-century characters who articulated their own language informed by their condition.

By complicating the meaning of the chess pieces and converting the installation into a true labyrinth of meaning and references, Three Chess Problems is an abstract guide with movements and strategies inspired by a series of games from Lewis Carroll’sThrough the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There and historical games by Nabokov and Duchamp.

Téllez uses chess as a metaphor for a closed loop, where the possibilities of the game are always subject to the administration of norms, offering us a pessimistic and closed vision of the history of psychology in order to make us aware of its hermetic nature. The possibility of play should never be prohibited within this structure. A labyrinth without play would leave “Ariadne without a job.”2 Games should be open to new strategies, and personal choice should prevail over established protocols, which in this case is the lethargy that intuition, and the possibility of choice, are reduced to under the progressive psychiatric-ization of life.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a publication with essays by Dieter Roelstraete (Senior Curator at the MCA, Chicago), Ruth Estévez (gallery director and curator at REDCAT) and Javier Téllez.

1 Artoud, Antonin. Selected Writings. University of California Press Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1988. P-203.

2 The title of Javier Téllez’s exhibition in REDCAT (Games are Forbidden in the Labyrinth) is a reference to a phrase to be found in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris (“No playing in the labyrinth”). This phrase is criticized by Ivan Chtcheglov in his book “Formulaire pour un urbanisme nouveau,” which offers new ways of understanding movement within the city.

Funded in part with generous support from Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Additional support provided by William Anawalt on behalf of Anawalt Lumber.

About the artists

Javier Téllez lives and works in New York. His work has been shown internationally in venues such as MoMA PS1, New York; ZKM, Karlsruhe; KW, Berlin; Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon; The Power Plant, Toronto; Museo Tamayo, Mexico City; SMAK, Museum for Contemporary Art, Ghent; and Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam. He took part in TRACK (2012) in Ghent, dOCUMENTA (13) (2012), Lyon Biennale (2011), Whitney Biennale (2008), Manifesta (2008), Sydney Biennale (2008 and 2004), Yokohama Triennale (2001) and Venice Biennale (2003 and 2001). Javier Téllez is a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial fellow (1999) and was a guest of the DAAD Artist programme in Berlin from 2010 to 2011.