A Body Without Organs: Javier Téllez at Koenig & Clinton

Installation view of Javier Téllez: To Have Done with the Judgment of God, 2016

Installation view of Javier Téllez: To Have Done with the Judgment of God, 2016

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.

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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.

Installation view of framed A. A. Postcards (2016), detail

Installation view of framed A. A. Postcards (2016), detail

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.

Javier Téllez, Artaud Le Momo, mixed media, 71 x 20 x 17 in (180.3 x 50.8 x 43.2 cm), 2016

Javier Téllez, Artaud Le Momo, mixed media, 71 x 20 x 17 in, 2016

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.

Installation view of Javier Téllez: To Have Done with the Judgment of God, 2016

Installation view of Javier Tellez, To Have Done With The Judgment Of God, 2016

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.

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“No Money No Honey” at 33 Orchard

Installation view featuring poem by Vincent Katz.

Installation view featuring poem by Vincent Katz

“No Money No Honey”–truth, right? This exhibition at 33 Orchard, a collective art space on the Lower East Side, makes the case for this idiom. Director Jane Kim explains how “honey … denotes the pleasures, both material and metaphysical, that are inherently associated with wealth.”

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Installation view, Mercury Rising

Cue the balloons. In the claymation music video Mercury Rising (2015, 4.31 min.), Colm Dillane & theMIND visualize this theme through a loose, fantastical narrative of two kids ascending out of their ordinary Chicago neighborhoods on a bicycle and balloon-covered wagon to fly among the stars. It is really enjoyable. In addition to the video, the claymation sets that Dillane used to make the animation are on view, originally the only works in the space.

IMG_8426Colm Dillane, Jupiter, 2015 (Clay, fabric, plastic, weave, balloons)

Rather than cynical, as the aphorism “No Money No Honey” might suggest, the show comes across as energetic, not least because the exhibition’s second iteration features additional works of painting, photomontage, drawing, and black-and-white photography on a banana-yellow wall. Works by this diverse group of artists (Peggy Preheim, Sally Webster, Sue Kwon, Vincent Katz, Martha Rosler) come together to form a show is not easily reducible to a single theme. However, broadly speaking, individual works address gender, capitalism, and urban life.

Installation view featuring Peggy Preheim’s three works on paper from her French franc note series created in 2001, a year before the Euro currency was introduced.

Installation view featuring Peggy Preheim’s three works on paper from her French franc note series created in 2001, a year before the Euro currency was introduced.

While the LES often offers a fresher take than Chelsea these days, too often work can feel like the carefully packaged product of an MFA program. That is not the case here, and the different aesthetic feels stimulating and deliberately gritty as it cheerfully raises a host of tricky issues.  No Money No Honey is up through March 13, in case your winter could use a jolt of exuberance.

Music, Migration, & Revolution: William Kentridge at Marian Goodman Gallery

Installation view of More Sweetly Play the Dance

Installation view of More Sweetly Play the Dance, 2015

Two film installations by William Kentridge, More Sweetly Play the Dance and Notes Toward a Model Opera, are currently on view at Marian Goodman Gallery and well worth a trek into midtown. Black-and-white animation drawn by hand and painstakingly constructed–so recognizable as the artist’s aesthetic–here gets a jolt of music, filmed actors, and, in the latter, color. The artist’s layered, complex approach to film here speaks to the broader sociopolitical contexts of migration and revolution.

Installation Detail, More Sweetly Play the Dance, 2015

Installation Detail, More Sweetly Play the Dance, 2015

Across a set of screens running the length of a room, disparate characters form a jangly, disconcerting procession in More Sweetly Play the Dance. Walking, dancing, limping, or strutting, these largely silhouetted forms brings a macabre energy to what resembles a funeral procession with the weird energy of a brass band propelling it. In addition to musicians, there are dancers in traditional African dress and people on medical drips. Kentridge’s trademark charcoal stop-motion animations form the backdrop for the silhouetted characters, who are like shadows on a forced march. The work functions not as a representation of a specific funeral as much as metaphor for the forces of migration. It feels apt to the current refugee crisis, and Kentridge, born in 1955 in Johannesburg to liberal Jewish parents who were active anti-apartheid attorneys, does not shy away from the sociopolitical. Indeed, meditations on subjects like apartheid in his native South Africa have appeared in his non-linear narratives with a beautiful obliqueness.

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Installation view, detail, Notes Toward a Model Opera, 2015

Notes Toward a Model Opera takes China’s cultural revolution as its subject matter, keying off of Madame Mao’s Eight Model Revolutionary Operas–what was allowed as popular entertainment in China during Mao’s reign. Kentridge reckons with the promise of this historical moment in China with a flurry of political slogans from the failed revolution, maps, and documentary photographs of deprivation against which figures proclaim, dance, or sing in the foreground. Images such as a bird drawn in charcoal flying across all three screens act as momentary pauses in this rush of imagery.

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Notes Toward a Model Opera implicates a contemporary South Africa and revolution writ large in addition to China’s cultural revolution through a multivalent set of signs. The same dancer from More Sweetly Play the Dance, the noted South African ballerina Dada Masilo, appears here with a rifle in pointe shoes, dancing in front of maps with China characters and slogans in English. Her costume suggests a military uniform and her gestures suggests combat as much as ballet. Text and image, English and Chinese, live dancer and documentary photo, merge in and out to a changing soundtrack. The great promises of the revolution are presented as a cacophony of paper fragments and chants. Instead of complete, as Madame Mao made her operas, Kentridge’s work remains open-ended–only “Notes”–as if acknowledging the impossibility of ever completing the utopian project of cultural revolution.

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The exhibition is on view at Marian Goodman gallery through February 20, 2016.