Javier Téllez, Rotations (Prometheus and Zwitter), 2011, two 35-mm film projections, 7 minutes each. Installation view.

Javier Téllez, Rotations (Prometheus and Zwitter), 2011, two 35-mm film projections, 7 minutes each. Installation view.

Javier Téllez

Javier Téllez, Rotations (Prometheus and Zwitter), 2011, two 35-mm film projections, 7 minutes each. Installation view.

One of the guiding images that drives his practice, Javier Téllez has said, is a memory from childhood. As a kid in Venezuela, Téllez would visit his psychiatrist father at the hospital where he worked. During carnival, when the world turns upside down, the mental patients would trade their uniforms for the doctors’ sterile white coats. In that strange, mutable moment, the paternalistic binaries of doctor and patient, normative and pathological, broke down. And so, eventually, Téllez’s videos and films—with their carnivalesque admixture of fiction and document, fantasia and poetic plainness—were born. As I write this review, the medieval carnival of Basel, called Fasnacht, rages outside. It seems no coincidence that my first experience of it conjured Diane Arbus’s infamous images of institutionalized mental patients. The sheer transgressiveness—a spell in which the constitutive order of society is overturned—was all there.

This vision of society’s upending, wherein the “insane” become the “sane” and vice versa, was everywhere in Téllez’s recent film installation Rotations (Prometheus and Zwitter), 2011, with its two silent 35-mm films projected side by side. In each, a figurative sculpture slowly rotates at the same speed but in opposite directions, each turning toward the center, as if mirroring the other—yet they are not identical. On the left is Arno Breker’s Prometheus, 1936, a dully heroic bronze commissioned by Joseph Goebbels. On the right is a wooden figure with engorged sexual organs entitled Zwitter (Hermaphrodite), 1920, its maker one Karl Genzel, a schizophrenic outsider artist.

Instructively, this is not the first time the two works have been posited in opposition. In 1937, they figured in Hitler’s dueling exhibitions delineating National Socialist art and its “degenerate” counterpart. Prometheus was central to the “Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung,” while Zwitter featured in “Entartete Kunst,’’ which famously showed works by mental patients alongside famous modernist artworks, presenting them as equally “degenerate” and pathological. The Nazis were attempting to redraw the boundaries of sanity and insanity, but Téllez’s point is more subtle: He explores the dialectically related works for their disturbing equivalence. The film projections are positioned like a stereograph, that early 3-D technology in which pairs of identical images positioned side by side (each image for one eye alone) create the illusion of depth. Each plainly needs the other (as the subject needs the object) in order to retain its ideological standing.

Also on view was O Rinoceronte de Dürer (Dürer’s Rhinoceros), 2010. This Super 16 film transferred to high-definition video uses the artist’s primary methodology—collaborating on a video with psychiatric patients at a local institution—and plumbs his usual themes: stigmatization of mental illness, the architectonics of confinement, cinema. Shot in the actual panopticon of a Lisbon psychiatric hospital, the film features a stuffed rhinoceros being slowly, artlessly, and surreally wheeled around the room’s perimeter, past the narrow cells. Inside, patients enact their fantasies about their predecessors. Voice-overs are read from Kafka, Plato, and Jeremy Bentham. The video—like Téllez’s larger oeuvre—has a shimmering ethereal quality, even as the hallucinatory ideas espoused in it (about the nature of film, architecture, and creative space, and who is allowed to reside there) overshadow the pedagogical practice at its core. “The successive appearance of the body on the screen is, without a doubt, a form of resurrection,” Téllez has said. No doubt.

Quinn Latimer