Two 35mm films were projected side by side in a darkened room. On the left appeared a statue of a bronze Prometheus with a torch in his raised hand, a gift of fire to emancipate man; on the right, a comical carved-wood hermaphrodite holding a clock overhead. The camera examines the sculptures from head to toe, on all sides, slowly and methodically, the silence broken only by the projectors’ whirring. This installation is Javier TeÌllez’s Rotations (Prometheus and Zwitter), 2011, made during a residency at Berlin’s DAAD. The Prometheus is a 1937 sculpture by Arno Breker, Hitler’s proteÌgeÌ, and the small wooden Zwitter (Hermaphrodite), 1920, a piece by the schizophrenic Karl Genzel. The latter was one of many works presented in the infamous National Socialist exhibition “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art) of 1937, which denigrated avant-garde artists by drawing parallels between their work and that of psychiatric patients— equating artistic experimentation with mental instability.
TeÌllez’s exhibition also included the approximately 42-minute DuÌ?rer’s Rhinoceros (2010), a film shot inside a former prison for the criminally insane in Lisbon that was designed as a panopticon. (The building became a museum in 2000.) Current-day psychiatric patients enact fictional scenarios about the prison’s past inhabitants in the cells, while a preserved rhinoceros is wheeled around the central courtyard. This impressive work demonstrates TeÌllez’s more familiar approach to his recurring theme of the mentally ill, whom he often engages as collaborators and coauthors in com- plex site-specific film productions. Yet a constant in both works is the idea of visual observation and the point at which the visual proves inadequate. (The title refers to a famous 1515 woodcut of a rhinoceros that DuÌ?rer executed based on a friend’s written description and sketch, without any firsthand experience.)
In Rotations, TeÌllez creates parity between the two very different artworks by presenting them in the same format (isolated against white backgrounds) and scale (the projections fill the wall from ceiling to floor). Prometheus’s attri- butes have faded, the bronze discolored by decades of exposure, while the won- derfully vulgar genitalia of the enlarged figure of the hermaphrodite dominate the installation. Much as the film pretends to be objective by presenting a physiognomic examination, the visual juxtaposition is humorous and the facts of the works’ intersecting histories powerful. Behind the comedy lies the fact that Breker’s statue was to have graced Goebbels’s Ministry of Propaganda, bringing honor to the Third Reich, but now we see its creator as benighted.
If the installation is clever enough to avoid being portentous, TeÌllez refrains from reaching a didactic conclusion. The thought-provoking projections imply a karmic turn of history and allow Genzel the last laugh, but could equally signify an artwork’s inability to determine its own reading.
Photo: View of Javier TeÌllez’s Rotations (Prometheus and Zwitter), 2011, two 35mm film projections, each 7 minutes; at Peter Kilchmann.