In a small town, way out west, a run down cinema is seeking gold coin donations for restoration work. Everybody’s Theatre in Opunake, Taranaki, New Zealand, was, on Sunday 22nd March 2009, the location for a visceral performance piece, Intermission, in which two live lions paced the cinema while the audience was penned in a cage. This telling technique of inversion—where in this case the spectator traded roles with the subject—cues perfectly into recent works by Venezuelan born artist Javier Téllez.

Téllez describes his childhood experiences, his parents both being psychiatrists: ‘We used to go to visit my father in the hospital when we were kids. There was this amazing carnival celebration every year’. For the carnival, ‘the doctors would wear the uniforms of the patients and the patients would wear the uniforms of the doctors, and this was, kind of, my childhood. This is where I come from and I think that in a way I consider my work is an extension of these experiences’.

The lions in Intermission, Abdullah and Tshaka, develop upon this notion of the carnivalesque, the absurd. They stare through the mesh cage at the audience, more particularly at the infants in the audience, reversing their traditional role as zoo specimens. The lions involve the audience, the participants, who have queued for several hours to see this event, in an oblique critique of spectacle. They roar. It is arresting. They are magnificent and wretched at the same time. It is confrontational—their heads and jaws loom in the confines of the small cinema. They glow golden in the heat of two spotlights. But they are so removed from an appropriate habitat that the work is full of pathos too.

‘Why does a Lion belong to a movie theatre, I mean beyond the MGM opening credit?’ challenges Téllez. He particularly liked the MGM studio’s motto ‘Ars Gratia Artis’ (Art for art’s sake) and created the work as a ‘flexible structure’ for people ‘to live an experience that is not an everyday experience’. One of the connectors behind the idea to ‘bring in the lions’ was that cinemas typically have monarchic names. ‘It was great to find a cinema that was called ‘Everybody’s Theatre’. It is almost Bertholt Brecht. It’s quite republican!’

Indeed the cinema’s name, Everybody’s Theatre, makes it a perfect location for Téllez’s democratic, open-handed collaborative works. In the words of Govett-Brewster Art Gallery curator, Mercedes Vicente, who commissioned the One Day Sculpture project, Téllez has a ‘sustained interest in bringing peripheral communities and invisible situations to the fore of contemporary art. His work deals with institutional dynamics, disabilities and mental illness as marginalising conditions, and borderline collective and individual behaviours’. Téllez’s research-based works are invariably site-specific and frequently have a biographical edge. His grandfather was a founder of an early cinema in Venezuela. Taranaki’s small towns, with their passionate advocates for their local cinemas, reminded him of these early cinematic experiences. Téllez sensed, ‘the desperate need to keep this movie theatre in this small town. It’s part of the piece. I couldn’t have shown it in the auditorium [of the gallery]’. He adds, that ‘It wasn’t really conceived as a fundraiser. Every time they screen a film they take a gold coin donation, but if I bring four hundred people, in the space of a few hours, then that’s a lot of coins’. The audience is shown to their seat by Gwelfa Burgess, the oldest working usherette in New Zealand.

Téllez will be familiar to many from his residency and video work, La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc (Rozelle Hospital), a stellar work from the 2004 Biennale of Sydney. The majority of his works involve collaborations with patients from psychiatric institutions. That work reframed Carl Theodor Dreyer’s black and white film, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), with new intertitles created by patients at the Rozelle institution. Téllez’s installation paired the devastating no-makeup ‘acting’ of the 1928 original film with documentary-style biographical accounts from the Australian women, of their diagnoses and treatment. The slippage from normal to pathological in that work and back again is devastating, from heretic to hysterical, rational to theatrical, the work is incisive, principled, unflinching.

Téllez argues that ‘Artistic agency is something that you can give away somehow’. His model for agency ‘is something that I call a passport. [As an artist] I have a passport to go in and out of a mental institution, which neither psychiatrists nor patients have. This passport gives me a position where I can negotiate the agency and give it back to the patients, to share that agency with patients. Where they can actually contribute to or generate the discourse’.

When asked about the unexpected outcomes and unintended consequences of working in such a collaborative fashion, he remarks that each case, each project is very unique. He recalls that ‘In Sydney, we used a derelict building in the hospital as a set for the film. After we finished the film the twelve patients decided to ask the institution to use the building as a community centre, and they did create a community centre and they call it the Arc, and I am on the mailing list’.

Another example Téllez cites, which came from an unexpected source, was during his performance project One Flew Over the Void (Balla Perdida) (2005), made in collaboration with residents of a Mexican mental institution. Téllez commissioned a professional human cannonball to stage a border crossing from Tijuana, Mexico to San Diego, USA. The ‘cannonball’ deftly showed his American passport before he was catapulted over the border. His gesture was not planned, but unloaded a dose of irony that has become part of the fabric or folklore of the work: part carnival, part protest, for Mexicans do not find it so easy to traverse the border.

The influences that Téllez cites are almost invariably cinematic: Jean Rouch and Pier Paolo Pasolini are important. Rouch’s style, derived from ethnography, is ‘definitely influential’ for the paradigm of ‘how to conceive the other, represent the other, how to involve the other’. Téllez’s working methods are like an archaeology of cinema, rekindling cinematic or literary relics of a previous era, as he did in the Sydney Biennale work, and creating a new interpretative framework for them.

Dedicated to his mother, who was blind for the last ten years of her life, the work, Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See (2007), is beguiling. The black and white film was originally shown at the Whitney Biennial 2008 and references Denis Diderot’s essay of the same name (1749). Picking up the parable of the blind men and the elephant—who each experience a different part of the elephant—Téllez invited six blind New Yorkers to explore a live elephant in an empty swimming pool. Their experiences and biographical interviews are spliced together consecutively. The opaque elephant hide becomes a screen on which to inscribe experience—like the black board device Téllez has used in works such as Meditations upon a broom stick (2004), which was also on show at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. Letter on the Blind’s private performance becomes a treatise on subjectivity and perception. The chairs that these participants sit in while waiting for their turn, are waiting for us. In just one of the many inversions that Téllez offers up, six identical chairs are positioned in front of the screen for the audience to use. His works represent the gift of opportunity. 

Hanna Scott has no pets. She lives and works in Auckland.

Head Zookeeper Dalu Mncube, who assisted on Javier Téllez’s project, died tragically after a white tiger mauled him at the Zion Wildlife Gardens, Whangarei on Wednesday, 27 May 2009.