God and organs, screams and silent landscape, ritual and the medical gaze fill the current exhibition “To Have Done with the Judgement of God” at Koenig & Clinton. As evidenced by its title, which is borrowed from a play by Antonin Artaud, Javier Téllez is exploring the life and work of the French writer. The centerpiece of the exhibition is a film of the same name. Téllez’s film keys off of Artaud’s 1936 visit to northern Mexico. There Artaud sought out and lived with the indigenous Rarámuri people. For the film, Téllez creates another encounter between local residents and Artaud. He has Artaud’s 1947 censored radio play To Have Done with the Judgement of God translated into the Rarámuri language and then radio broadcast across the area. His film documents local reactions to this broadcast as residents go about their daily lives.
Artaud is best known for theorizing the Theater of Cruelty, and his radio play To Have Done With the Judgment of God was originally censored not just because of his expression of emotion as guttural sound, bestial cries, and alarming screams, but also for its scatological and anti-religious references. Téllez’s translation retains the alarming screams, which seem to echo off the bare, implacable rocks of northern Mexico in the beautiful footage of the film. Similarly, the people being filmed seem indifferent to the dissenting sentiments and non-linguistic noises interspersed with percussive elements.
Téllez also presents his collection of Artaud source material, such as personal postcards (pictured above) and a collection of first edition books and printed matter. The ephemera characterizes the writer’s engagement with the Rarámuri people, rooting it a 1930s traveler’s perspective. Artaud went to Mexico on a travel grant, but it almost functioned as a kind of pilgrimage. His writings about the experience highlight the supernatural, and his fascination with the local culture included participating in a peyote ceremony. The spirit of religious intensity echoes in unexpected ways throughout text and film. Caustic denouncements of religion from the play To Have Done With…. are overlaid with footage of the Rarámuri engaging in ceremonies that blend Catholic traditions with far older ritual.
“For you can tie me up if you wish
but there is nothing more useless than an organ.
When you will have made him a body without organs,
then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions
and restored him to his true freedom.”
–Final lines of To Have Done with the Judgment of God (1947)
Artaud’s lines about organs and the body (to be picked up and theorized by Deleuze and Guittari) echo with footage of animal sacrifice. Rarámuri male residents are showing binding an animal, circling him several times, piercing his neck to let the blood drain, and then throwing unwanted pieces on the ground for the dog. Stressing the material reality of the organs as in the film evokes the bodily reality that Artaud intended. Here the body without organs returns to its original intended emphasis that includes a refusal of metaphor in favor of lived experience.
Téllez also displays a vintage mannequin in the gallery, suited in a straitjacket from Artaud’s era. This work highlights another aspect of the writer–his madness and addiction. Artaud had been treated with opiates by medical professionals from his youth onward for his instability and melancholy. He suffered from a horrific withdrawal as he journeyed to the land of the Rarámuri. He describes becoming “a giant, inflamed gum.” In the mannequin, we see the valuation of health and sanity undercut by the barbaric measures of restraint. Overall, Téllez presents the materials of Artaud’s life clinically, in orderly arrangements under glass. This treatment mimics the medical gaze which dehumanizes the writer-as-mannequin. It also places Artaud under the same distanced, clinical judgement with which he himself viewed the Rarámuri on his travels.
In the film, a preoccupation with religion is expressed in two extremes: a current priesthood, and dated words declaring the end of such things in the modern world. These different valences suggest not so much some vast interpenetration of meanings, but rather a disconnect between cultures and meanings. The afterlife of Artaud’s play, the history of his own journey, and the contemporary lives of the Rarámuri people continue along parallel tracks. The viewer can pick up seeming commonalities only because the exhibition takes them out of time and preserves them in a perpetual mise en scène. These currents of cultural overlay without mutual understanding suggests an oblique criticism of Artaud’s original pilgrimage to explore the exotic.
Javier Téllez: To Have Done with the Judgment of God is up at Koenig & Clinton through April 14, 2016.