Javier Tellez’s Penalty

by Raul Zamudio

Recent curatorial endeavors in contemporary Latin American art exhibited in North American/European circuits have unwittingly perpetuated that which they previously contested. Whereas at one time exhibitions like The Art of the Fantastic were critiqued for their curatorial one-dimensionality that decontextualized Latin American art of its social, political, and historical specificity, the pendulum has swung the other way in producing curatorial discourse that diminishes heterogeneity in excluding artistic practice that is not focused mainly on European and North American trends. A healthy, vibrant, and much needed resistance to this discourse can be seen in the work of Javier Tellez. This work is a confluence of divergent aesthetic influences that addresses social, political, and personal concerns, and through its poetic and at time visceral beauty, it becomes tantamount to a hand grenade wrapped in velvet.

Tellez’s recent installation entitled “Penalty” exhibited last spring at the Silverstein Gallery in New York, incorporated a diversity of media that addressed a multiplicity of issues. Upon entering the installation one was immediately drawn into the work through the counterpoint of formal elements: hung on the four walls of the gallery were photographs and a soccer referee’s shirt with a Rolling Stones logo and placed underneath it was a pair of referee flags. Juxtaposed with this encompassing planar schema of photographs, shirt and flags was the three-dimensionality of the central installation consisting of two regulation soccer posts with socks that hung from their nets, and between the posts was a small mattress covered with a “sheet” that was stitched to simulate a soccer field. Placed on top and in the center of the “soccer field” was a cactus in a planter.

The photographs, which are a formal tour de force in themselves, were at times pastoral but more often depicted the brutal conditions of the infamous Tocuyito Prison in Venezuela. Printed across the photographs were texts appropriated from official sources dissimilar in typography. This appropriation immediately set up a tension that was formal as well as contextual. Foregrounding the ideological nature of sign systems, the different typographies of the photographs were juxtaposed so that they seemed to emanate from socially varied locations. Semiotically, script can convey ideology since its history and utilization are associated with particular classes or sociocultural practices. Taking these subtle dynamics into consideration, Tellez appropriated an official Venezuelan tourist slogan and placed it on the sides of the photographs. The slogan printed in bold color announced: “VENEZUELA The best kept secret in the Caribbean.” Opposite this text was another in “journalistic” or “neutral” typography that stated: “The Penitentiary of Tocuyito, Carabobo state.”

Typographical interplay was compounded by the disjunction between text and image. The photographs were postcards via their slogans, and through their more “neutral” typography were also archival documents of surveillance that recorded activities within the prison. Phenemenological slippage between the description and classification of the photographs as “objective” documents and “fictional” narratives allowed them to oscillate freely between what Roland Barthes calls the studium and punctum.

The studium, according to Barthes, gives “photographs an average affect” and while it allows one to enter into the pictorial field “culturally” and “participate in the figures, the faces, the gestures, the settings, the actions...the studium is [also] that very wide field of unconcerned desire, of various interest, of inconsequential taste.” In contrast to the studium is the punctum, which intervenes, ruptures, breaks, and punctures the image. The punctum is not directly perceived in the tableau but “rises from the scene, shoots out like an arrow and pierces [the viewer].”

The photographs in Tellez’s installation encapsulated the studium and punctum to a heightened degree and hinted at the polysemy in the work’s narrative. One image showed the exterior of the prison which at first glance became an aestheticized landscape in somber tones of grays and blues of almost “inconsequential taste.” The studium was opaque as the image conveyed a sense of the epic and panoramic through the minimalist horizontality of gridded buildings that were visually counterpointed by the verticality of the guard's tower. What disrupted the idyllic tableau vis-a-vis the punctum was the realization of the tower as a symbol of repression and surveillance. Surveillance and the institutional power behind it were addressed in another photograph by implicating the viewer through the complicity of the gaze.

In a faux portrait setting within the photograph, prisoners in soccer garb and huddled together as a team stared back at the viewer as mediators between the gaze of the viewer and that of the surveillance tower. Tellez troped the relationship between subject and object via the typography by jarring the viewer’s conscience and social acquiescence through an either/or dichotomy. Through the veneer of the postcard, the huddled individuals were viewed as persons with a nonthreatening and almost inviting demeanor. Through the typography that designates them as prisoners, the viewer’s socialization reflexively marginalized them as pariahs creating an internal conflict via a Dostoevskian conundrum and punctum par excellence: the prisoner's obvious humanity stealthily resonated with that of the viewer’s and subsequently interrogated the latter’s notion of morality, crime and punishment. It was as if for once the jurors became executioners and consequently their actions, integrity and conscience were called into question.

Another critique of judicial process, however this time within a north/south context, was addressed in a poignant yet seemingly parodic manner through the referee’s shirt with a Rolling Stones logo. Like the corpus of Tellez’s work, the critique was freighted with multiple interpetations for it questioned the cultural as well as judicial since cultural identity was referenced vis-a-vis the symbol of a British rock band. By using the logo, Tellez inverted the Brazilian writer Oswald de Andrade’s concept of anthropophagy.

In the Anthropophagy Manifesto of 1928, Andrade rallies for “The daily love and the capitalist modus vivendi. Anthropophagy. Absorption of the sacred enemy...in order to transform the taboo into totem.” Andrade’s anthropophagy or “cannibalization” attempted to reconcile European influences with his own cultural milieu in order to forge an authentic modern Brazilian voice that would not only retain its uniqueness, but in its syncretic Modernity, engage itself in and contribute to the burgeoning Modernist international.

In the installation, the consumption of Western culture and its hybridization was less potentially liberatory. Instead it was associated more with the normative in its perpetuation of the status quo symbolized in the referee’s shirt and logo and its alignment with institutional power. In referencing this power, its discourse and circuits, and in addressing the subsumation of one culture by another, the referee’s shirt became a sort of palimpsest of north/south and institutional/prisoner dynamics. For the referee is not only the mediator of “order” in the soccer game that is played by the prisoners for “rehabilitation” purposes. But through the logo it is also an embodiment of external cultural encroachment and of subtle institutional power that is interchangeable with the installation’s other images of authority and repression: the guard's tower, barbed wire fencing, rooms for solitary confinement, a hole in the floor evincing a failed escape...that alluded to a void or abyss of hopelessness. Yet, for Tellez to convey fully the desolation, alienation, and fragmentation that is the experiential lowest common denominator in the incarceration labyrinth, he evoked the prisoner’s presence through their absence.

Absent presence unified and cohered the surrounding photographs and objects with the central part of the installation: the soccer posts and mattress. Although Tellez reiterated the north/south binary, he collapsed it by paralleling the socially marginal within North America and Venezuela through the urban vernacular.

In low income minority urban centers in the U.S. victims of violence are memorialized by having their sneakers hung by their shoe strings in trees, on fences around basketball courts, and over telephone lines. Tellez poetically referenced this urban phenomenon in the installation while allowing it to resonate with multiple meanings. The suspended socks became the symbolic counterpart to the sneakers and not only were they indices of social milieux that generate such vernacular practices, but they reverted back to the narrative of the prisoners as soccer players who, in transgressing the rules of the game (and society), are in a perpetual state of Penalty. Social and psychological displacement was further referenced by the mattress with a sheet that served as the “soccer field” in which the game--or desire--is played out under the vigilance of guards, wardens, the incarceration apparatus, and the larger Venezuelan sociopolitical machinery.

A final example of Tellez’s subversive imagination was the coup de grace of the installation's center with its perverse Borgesian and panopticon allusions. Like the bargaining table where prison administrators and reformers can convene in dialogue, the only “neutral” space on the “soccer field” where opposing teams can meet on equal footing, even for a moment, was intervened by a cactus.