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Art & Theory
Naming the Unnamable
by Raúl Zamudio

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In "You Are Here", for example, a video installation of a "performative" nature realized with the patients of Nirgua Psychiatric Hospital in Venezuela, there is a complex weaving of narratives emanating from the self/other that are then transposed into other categories with the intention of undermining them. Thus the patients are the subordinate element of the self/other dynamic, and through deferral other dichotomies are figured to elucidate a more complete "diagnosis" of the patients and their maladies. Health is thus the opposite of sickness, rationality of the irrational, sanity/insanity, etc. According to Western psychiatry these imbalances are understood to be psychological and somatic in nature, but are construed by Foucault as symptomatic of social alienation engendered by circuits of power; and a historical necessity for the establishment and prolongation of state control. But if Téllez were only addressing such things in his work, however compelling, it would amount to nothing more than a florid didacticism underscored by rigorous institutional critique.

This is not the case; for what is evident in the overall work of Javier Téllez is not only its criticality and visual poetics, but an understanding of these dichotomies that has a basis in philosophy, psychoanalysis, history, sociology, and anthropology, to name a few disciplines; these, in turn, are formally and conceptually integrated in his work with themes, ideas, tropes and strategies culled from an array of sources including literature, art history, architecture and popular culture. The misinterpretation of Téllez's work is not without its merits when exploring its nuance and subtleties: the "politically correct" have construed "You Are Here" as well as other works realized in collaboration with psychiatric patients as being exploitative; or that it espouses a meta-position of moral authority in its analyses of psychiatry's history, its formation and general discursivity, and its role as an extension of the state. Yet Téllez's work operates in the locality of the other in undermining psychiatryí­s impetus for universal well-being that marginalizes any forms of social agency that does not fit the normative of what the state deems socially and politically acceptable. Empathetic with what ostensibly maybe seen as the transgressive, "You Are Here" resonates with the philosopher and Talmudic scholar Emmanuel Levinas' humanist and ethical notion of the other, where the selfí­sí­ identification with its opposite becomes tantamount to moral necessity (3). There are also references to Hans-George Gadamer's philosophical hermenuetics as well: "Hermenuetics acquires a central place in viewing human experience. This feeling for the individuality of persons, the realization that they cannot be classified and deduced according to general rules or laws, is a significant new approach to the concreteness of the other [italics mine](4).

Levinas' concept of the other and Gadamer's hermenuetics are evinced in "You Are Here" in numerous ways. The freedom of the patients to do what they wish in the video exemplified in their spontaneous pushing of a giant ball around the hospital grounds, however contained within the context of confinement, asserts a social independence, however brief, via the undermining of the administrative apparatus and authorial voice of the artist that calls attention to the patients' status of alterity. Although we know that "You Are Here" is a work of art, the ceding of artistic authority by Téllez allows a certain liberty in the patients by diminishing the subject/object dichotomy that underlies the traditional relationship of artist and artwork. In fact, the work operates as a situationist intervention into social space with its own random direction and unfolding in real time that transgressively engages the architectonics of institutional confinement. It is in this "play of difference" that the patients can articulate an unbridled desire innate with its own self-driven therapeutic potential. In the collective performance of the patients there is also a multiplicity of action, though sporadic, unconscious and at times indeterminate, that dismantles the self/other and diffuses it under the rubric of Gilles Deleuzeí­s concept of the rhizome (5).

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