Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art

49th Venice Biennale
10 June - 4 November 2001

Venice / 2001 / Plateau / Arsenale


Javier Téllez
From an interview with Pat Binder and Gerhard Haupt.

I designed this work especially for the Biennale. It's about Huntington's Chorea, also called St. Vitus's Dance, a genetic disease that causes a degeneration of the brain cells. It's also about Venezuela, where the world's highest concentration of cases can be found on Lake Maracaibo.

I've named my work »Choreutics«. The term was invented by the choreographer Rudolf Laban for a new way of describing the movements of the human body that allows for a liberation from the rigidity of classical dance. I use the title as a wordplay to create a connection between »chorea« - which means movement - Huntington's Chorea, and the Venezuelan tragedy, especially in the villages on the shores of Lake Maracaibo. The symptoms of the disease are involuntary movements, as the person gradually loses control over body and mind. The disease was brought to Venezuela in the 19th century by a European sailor. Due to the seclusion of these villages, people there reproduce among themselves, and as a result, the illness spreads. Thereby, both poverty and marginality intensify, because when the people are stricken by the disease they can no longer work as fishermen. Adding to this, the government does not supply sufficient medical support.

The installation is built like a labyrinth, using the metaphor of the spider web. In this way, I create references to popular beliefs: Venezuelans know Huntington's Chorea as »Mal de Sambito« and therefore associate it with the classical disease, the psychological epidemic of the Middle Ages. Therefore, in the work, a psycho-historical jump results between Italy and the Tarantella as well as between the »Mal de Sambito« and Venezuela. Moreover, the very area in which the disease is so widespread is the one in which the name »Venezuela« - Little Venice - originated, because the houses were built directly on the shores of the lake.*)

I used a documentary film made in 1972 by Dr. Avila Girón, a Venezuelan psychiatrist from Maracaibo, and juxtaposed sequences from the film with patterns of a spider web. There are two repeating elements in the edition of the video which function like intervals. One is the spider web being constructed and dismantled, and the other is a top turning between the hands of the children from the affected villages - as a symbol for the disease and the genetic inheritance, and simultaneously a symbol for fate. Actually, the image is like a big spider web in which all strands come together or diverge: the lines of the children's hands, the line of the string that spins the top, and finally, the strand of Aria-DNA as the umbilical cord connecting all of the protagonists in my work.

The documentary shows the grandparents and parents of the people that I filmed. In a way, it's a great commemorative effort to show these connections and call attention to a reality that is basically invisible in Venezuela. No one talks about Huntington's Chorea, even though there are villages like Barranquitas, in which half of the 20,000 inhabitants are suffering from the disease.

The work is meant to be a metaphor in another sense, too: I wanted to bring a peripheral and invisible situation into the center - in this case, into the center of the art world - and thereby operate in the space between center and periphery. The work is a very specific contribution to this concept of a »Plateau of Humankind«.

Visitors enter through four doors. But there are four more cells, in which machines continuously shoot tennis balls at the video images.

I often work with themes of a psychiatric character. My parents were psychiatrists, so in a way there are autobiographical elements in my work. When I was very young, my father took me to the hospitals with him. I think, that led to a breakdown of the distinction between what is considered »normal« and what is considered »pathologic«. My work functions in this grey area.

(Translated from the German version by Holly Austin)

»In the late middle ages, in southern Italy, it was thought that the bite of the tarantula produced the condition of chorea, those seizures of uncontrollable movement, which seemed to have become a Europe-wide epidemic at the time, and which in English was known as St Vitus's Dance, and in French as 'La Danse de St. Guy'. In Italy, it was believed that the only possible cure was the mimetic dance, which became the tarantella.«
(From the catalogue text by Guy Brett)

Javier Téllez / + zoom in

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Javier Téllez
© Interview, translation, photos:
Gerhard Haupt & Pat Binder