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Art & Theory
Naming the Unnamable
by Raúl Zamudio
07/01/03


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The Other is that which renders possible-
Gilles Deleuze*

To begin an essay with the title "the Unnamable", is to embark on a conundrum freighted with uncertainty analogous to other paradoxes of an artistic, philosophical, and linguistic nature: "in a flat painting look for space" (Lieou Tao-Chouen); "at the foundation of well founded belief is belief that is not founded" (Ludwig Wittgenstein); "quote me as saying he was misquoted" (Groucho Marx). What unifies each of these contextually diverse statements is that they appear to end in contradiction. While these circular, syntactic puzzles are rooted in Ancient Greek rhetoric and syllogism where a statement is proposed and only through its negation can its truth claims be contested, they also exhibit what the philosopher Jacques Derrida termed the "absent presence" of language (1). In other words, language as the vehicle for knowledge transmission is by nature flawed at its inception, creating "meaning effects" through an endless chain of signifiers amounting to an "presence"; thus meaning is never fully achieved and is always beside itself. For Derrida has shown that words, concepts etc, are enriched and more complete in their signification when they defer to what they are not; consequently there is a contingency on the other that simultaneously creates an absence through presence. The question that arises and is the subject of this essay, however, is how do the aforementioned quotes that individually tie themselves up like semantic Borromean knots amounting to linguistic auto-asphyxiation, serve as analogies for the recent work and artistic strategies of Javier Téllez?

The myriad conceptual currents that run through the art of Javier Téllez in general are structured around dichotomies rooted in philosophy and are infused with a political subtext; these dichotomies are exposed as necessary antinomies and for the most part are never devoid of poetics, irony and humor. The basis for these oppositions is the self/other binary that emerges in Téllez's work overall and that he interrogates to the point of its implosion. Yet the route taken to this philosophical dissolution is manifold. The political reverberations of the self/other dichotomy that Téllez addresses has a distinct lineage with the historian/philosopher Michel Foucault and his seminal study Madness and Civilization (2). In his book, Foucault argues that this dichotomy is foundational for Western concepts of self-knowledge; and even more telling of its ideological imperative, that the self/other is transposed into other binaries crucial for Western cultural identity: culture/nature, civilized/barbarian, Western/non-Western and so forth. This self/other configuration is epistemological in nature in that it is constitutive of a particular form of knowledge acquisition and conceptualization of the world, and is linked in a roundabout way to Derrida's concept of deferred meaning: in the same way that words defer in order to be more comprehensible, the self needs the other in order to know what it is not. Questions surrounding the self/other are nonetheless freighted with unequal relations of power that are innately political, and it's this power differential that Téllez also fleshes out it in his work into a web of conceptual and formal configurations.

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