press release

Games Are Forbidden in the Labyrinth is a solo exhibition by Venezuelan artist Javier Téllez exploring psychiatric confinement, the architecture of surveillance, and the game of chess as strategically interrelated systems. The two major works in the exhibition, Dürer’s Rhinoceros (2010), and Chess(2014), dislocate perception through the reenactment of delirium.

Téllez set his film Dürer’s Rhinoceros within the panopticon of Hospital Miguel Bombarda in Lisbon, collaborating with psychiatric outpatients who form the film’s cast. Following the original architectural plans of Jeremy Bentham for a panoptic institution, the prison housed the criminally insane, and was in continuous operation from 1896 until 2000, when it was converted into a museum.

Hospital Miguel Bombarda was the sole panopticon prison in the world to surround an open courtyard, and its occupants were confined to small cells surrounding a central surveillance tower. Téllez conducted a series of workshops with the patients in advance of filming that led them to enact fictional everyday scenarios within the cells. The dramatic fragmentation of these sequences is set against a series of voiceovers quoting from 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.

The symbolic presence of a taxidermy rhinoceros provides rhythm to the film’s narrative—during interludes between the diorama-like actions within the cells, we see several prisoners pulling the animal around the perimeter of the courtyard. This melancholic motion refers to Albrecht Dürer’s famous sixteenth-century engraving of Ganda, the first rhinoceros to visit Europe. Ganda arrived in Portugal in 1515 as a gift to King Manuel I, yet was soon after given to Pope Leo X, only to perish in a shipwreck en route from Portugal to Italy.

In Chess, Téllez replaced the traditional chess pieces with psychiatric implements—intricate anatomical assemblages resting on sample miniature beds—to form a playing field of uncertain and expectant theatricality. Téllez’s giant game combines seemingly 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 subject of Téllezʼs practice. Working in collaboration with psychiatric patients, Téllez produces films and installations that challenge stereotypes associated with mental illness, and that, as critic Michèle Faguet stated, “engage in an ethical manner with communities of individuals who live outside the models of normative behavior that define the parameters of aʻsaneʼ society, but that are constantly shifting in relation to the ideological structures that determine this social order.”

Games Are Forbidden in the Labyrinth opens a new space for play in formerly closed systems, inverting the power dynamics between surveillance tower and cell.

About the Artist
Javier Téllez was born in 1969 in Valencia, Venezuela. Téllez’s work has been shown nationally and internationally in venues such as MoMA PS1, New York; ZKM, Karlsruhe, Germany; Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin; Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon; The Power Plant, Toronto; Museo Rufino Tamayo, Mexico City; S.M.A.K., Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art, Ghent; and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. His work was included in dOCUMENTA (13) (2012); TRACK, Ghent (2012); Lyon Biennale (2011); Whitney Biennial, New York (2008); Manifesta, Trento, Italy (2008); Sydney Biennale (2008 and 2004); Yokohama Triennale, Japan (2001); and Venice Biennale (2003 and 2001). Téllez is a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellow (1999) and was a guest of the DAAD Artists-in-Residence Programme in Berlin 2010 to 2011. A retrospective of his work opens at Kunsthaus Zürich in October 2014. He currently lives and works in New York.
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.