The Memorial Art Gallery's media arts commission series continued last week with the premiere of Javier Téllez's film installation, "NOSFERATU (The Undead)." Using clips from F.W. Murnau's 1922 silent German expressionist film "Nosferatu" as an anchor, Téllez's short film connects the history of cinema with themes of mental illness and alienation. The installation remains on view throughout May (Mental Health Awareness Month) and into June.
"NOSFERATU (The Undead)" is the first of three exhibitions planned as part of "Reflections on Place," a series of media art commissions inspired by the City of Rochester, curated by moving image authority John G. Hanhardt, and executed by renowned filmmakers. During the preview party held on Saturday, April 21, visitors were given timed tickets to see the short film in shifts. The work was projected onto a wall in the Grand Gallery, which has been converted into a darkened cinema space complete with rows of seats.
The child of two psychiatrists, Téllez was exposed to concepts of mental health at a young age, and has previously made movies with patients from psychiatric institutions and other disenfranchised people around the world. Born in Venezuela, Téllez is now based in New York City.
In preparation for this Rochester-based film, he conducted a series of workshops on the subjects of vampirism and the representation of psychiatric institutions in film. Téllez worked in collaboration with people living with mental illness, and shot "NOSFERATU (The Undead)" in black-and-white 16mm and color digital film on location at the Eastman Kodak factory, the George Eastman Museum's Dryden Theatre, and at the Main Street Armory.
In a provided statement, Téllez says that he and his collaborators wanted to "focus on those who are stigmatized by being different and condemned to invisibility."
In the film, a small group of people silently act the part of fictional asylum patients and staff as they take turns, through voiceover, relating experiences with mental illness to the concept of the vampire. They coexist together in a room of neat cots -- the arched doorways and peeling paint of the Armory's upper rooms serve as an effective stand in for an old-timey institution. In other scenes, Téllez's camera steadily captures each of their gazes as they watch the 1922 film on the Dryden's screen. And one of the actors, who at times is made up to resemble the vampire Count Orlok, haunts the Kodak factory, emerges from a film canister as though it were a coffin, and is subjected to shock treatment.
The subject matter of the thoughtful work benefits from the film's slow pacing and silence (except for the voiceovers and dramatic piano accompaniment by Philip Carli). And there's a meta, film-within-a-film element involved -- Téllez's actor-collaborators were involved in building their own scenes, but also view the parallel story on screen at the theater.
Included in programming associated with the exhibition, Téllez curated a film series at the Dryden: "After Bedlam: The Mental Institution in Film." The final film in this series, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," screens Wednesday, April 25, at 7:30 p.m. The MAG's "Reflections on Place" series continues later this year with film-based work by Dara Birnbaum and Isaac Julien.
Discussion: The next event in the “At the Crossroads: Activating the Intersection of Art and Justice” series takes place Friday, April 27, 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., at Gallery 74 (215 Tremont Street). Held on South Africa’s Freedom Day, “Winnie: A Long Table Conversation and Installation” will examine the life and pay tribute to the recently deceased Winnie Madikizela Mandela, the mother of post-apartheid South Africa. The event will feature New York City playwright Sarita Covington reading her new play, “Things Went Horribly Wrong,” over Skype, and a following discussion. $15; register online at winnie.brownpapertickets.com.
Screening and talk: On the eve of National Superhero Day, the Rochester Association of Black Journalists will present a special screening of the film “Black Panther.” Following the screening a panel discussion on Afrofuturism will be moderated by Tara Eagan, president of the Black Student Union at the University of Rochester. Panel members include Jeffrey Allen Tucker, UR associate professor of English; Nita Brown, fashion designer and owner of MansaWear boutique, and a native of Ghana; and sci-fi and fantasy author Katrina Thompson. Friday, April 27, 7 p.m., at The Little Theatre (240 East Avenue). Attendees are encouraged to wear African attire. Tickets $6-$9. rabjournalists.org.
Art film: Artist and activist Ai Weiwei is known for tackling a variety of social and political themes in his work. Letting the medium serve the message, he shifts seamlessly from sculpture to installation, film, photography, and architecture. His relentless spotlight on corrupt power structures has earned him trouble — he was held as a political prisoner by Chinese officials in 2011. Ai’s new film, “Human Flow,” focuses on the global refugee crisis, and will be screened Sunday, April 29, at The Cinema Theater (957 South Clinton Avenue) at 1 p.m. Tickets are $5 for the general public and $3 for students and seniors.