Art Review – Javier Téllez
The Power Plant Gallery, Toronto
“My mother slept with an axe under her pillow. We lived in terror that my father would return to murder us in the night.
For some reason, I was always expected to be happy.” It is the unmistakable voice of agency that we hear in Javier Téllez’s video installation The Passion of Jeanne d’Arc (Rozelle Hospital) 2004—a brave voice that cuts through sentimentality and voyeurism, requiring us simply to bear witness. It belongs to one of a group of women suffering from mental illness who are institutionalized at Rozelle Hospital in Sydney, Australia, where the Venezuelan artist Javier Téllez took up a residency to collect their stories.
At either end of the exhibition space is a large screen. One shows us Téllez’s interviews with the 12 participating women; on the other plays Carl Dreyer’s 1928 silent masterpiece La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc.
“All the women in my family have the gift,” says a girl, referring to the visions for which she has been committed. “They’ve just learned to hide it.”
Téllez’s installation is hidden behind heavy velvet curtains that are lined with hospital-issue linens, sustaining a metaphor for the split between normal and pathological states, vision and delusion. In his unwaveringly sensitive treatment of the material, Téllez has the women rewrite the film’s subtitles in their own words, bringing Jeanne d’Arc’s plight into the present as an echo of their own.
“Sign it, or you’ll have your privileges taken away,” reads one, as Jeanne is pictured on her knees in a medieval torture chamber. Since the viewer cannot watch both screens at once, one is forced to look away either from Jeanne as she bleeds or from the stark Rozelle testimony, subtly reinforcing their relationship. Ironically, the original negatives of La Passion were discovered fifty years after their filming in a closet at a mental hospital in Norway.
Like any truly effective artwork, Rozelle can be received on several levels. It reaches the individual, who must battle normativity every day to retain selfness, and it speaks to women as a group (clinical depression is twice as common among women as men). Perhaps most especially, Rozelle resonates within the imaginative life of those who struggle to breathe in a culture of airtight rationality.
In considering the ongoing debate about the relationship between madness and divine revelation, it is perhaps appropriate to remember Jeanne d’Arc’s 1431 trial. She was asked, “Do you know if you are in the grace of God?” Jeanne replied, “If I am not, may God place me there; if I am, may God so keep me.”
This article was originally published in June/2006 issue of Canadian Art Magazine