Exhibitions , International

Javier Téllez: Games Are Forbidden in the Labyrinth

Opening Reception at SFAI’s Walter & McBean Galleries: Thursday, September 11, 7-9pm

Games Are Forbidden in the Labyrinth was co-produced with REDCAT in Los Angeles, and originally curated by Ruth Estevez. The exhibition explores psychiatric confinement, surveillance architecture, and the game of chess as strategically interrelated systems. The exhibition’s two major works, Dürer’s Rhinoceros (2010), and Chess (2014), dislocate perception through reenactments of delirium.

Venezuelan-born artist Javier Téllez staged his film Dürer’s Rhinoceros within the panopticon of Hospital Miguel Bombarda in Lisbon, and collaborated with psychiatric outpatients who form the film’s cast. Following Jeremy Bentham’s original architectural plans for a panoptic institution, the prison housed the criminally insane, and operated continuously from 1896 until its conversion in 2000 into a museum.

Bombarda was the world’s only panopticon prison to surround an open courtyard, and its small cells encircled a central surveillance tower. Téllez conducted workshops with the patients to develop fictional everyday scenarios they enacted within the cells. These fragmented tableaux contrast with voiceovers quoting Plato’s Cave, Jeremy Bentham’s letter on the panopticon, Kafka’s short story “The Burrow,” and a patient’s imagined account of life inside the institution.

A taxidermy rhinoceros adds absorbing rhythm to the narrative—during interludes between the diorama-like actions within the cells, prisoners pull the animal around the courtyard perimeter. This melancholic motion refers to Albrecht Dürer’s famous sixteenth-century engraving of Ganda, the first rhinoceros to visit Europe. Ganda landed in Portugal in 1515 as a gift to King Manuel I, yet was re-gifted to Pope Leo X, only to perish in a shipwreck en route from Portugal to Italy.

In Chess, Téllez deposes traditional chess pieces with psychiatric implements—intricate anatomical assemblages resting on sample miniature beds—to form an uncertain playing field of expectant theatricality. The giant game combines disparate references to psychiatry, art history, literature, and mass culture, such as Lewis Carroll, Bruegel the elder, Hieronymus Bosch, electroconvulsive treatment, the Rorschach test, the Michelin man, and the Sharon Tate murders. Throughout the exhibition, Chess will be activated with historic games and real-time performances.

For nearly two decades, mental illness has served as a primary locus of Te?llez?s practice. Working in collaboration with psychiatric patients, Téllez’s films and installations diminish stereotypes associated with mental illness—as critic Michèle Faguet stated, “[they] engage in an ethical manner with communities of individuals who live outside the models of normative behavior that define the parameters of a ?sane? society, but that are constantly shifting in relation to the ideological structures that determine this social order.”

Games Are Forbidden in the Labyrinth opens new spaces for play across formerly closed systems, and inverts the power dynamics between surveillance tower and cell.

Games Are Forbidden in the Labyrinth will be accompanied by a catalogue published by Roma Publications.

Games Are Forbidden in the Labyrinth at San Francisco Art Institute is co-presented with Kadist Art Foundation. Chess was jointly commissioned by REDCAT, Los Angeles, and Kadist Art Foundation, San Francisco.

For more information on affiliated public programs, please visit http://www.sfai.edu/labyrinth