In Defense of Play: Javier Téllez’s Games Are Forbidden in the Labyrinth, or How Do You Play Chess?

Printed Matters

In Defense of Play: Javier Téllez’s Games Are Forbidden in the Labyrinth, or How Do You Play Chess?

By Jing Cao March 24, 2015

From artists' monographs to beach reads, "Printed Matters" offers a monthly take by a rotating group of contributors on visual art through the printed word.

What is a game? 

A game is a set of rules and objectives that set the parameters for free and spontaneous play. Like the walls of a room, which both confine and define the space within them, it is the structure of a game that allows for the making of pleasure. 

Detail, advertisement for Thorazine from the American Journal of Psychiatry, Jan 1974. Reprinted in Javier Téllez’s Games Are Forbidden in the Labyrinth (Amsterdam: Roma Publications, 2015), 37.

Javier Téllez’s essay “Games Are Forbidden in the Labyrinth, or How Do You Play Chess?,” the major work in his book Games Are Forbidden in the Labyrinth, has a clear call-and-response structure. There are 64 “sets”—one for each square of the chessboard—composed of a question, an answer, and an image. For example, Set 5 places an ad for Thorazine, in which variously sized prescription bottles are arranged like pieces on a chess board, opposite a description of the admission procedures for a mental institution, drawn from Erving Goffman’s Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates1, which answers the question “Are there generally accepted ways of beginning a game of chess?”2

Questions are drawn from Fred Reinfeld’s book How Do You Play Chess?3 Answers are excerpts from texts such as Franz Kafka’s The Castle, Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization: A History of Madness in the Age of Reason, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Goffman’s Asylums. Images include details from historical works of art and advertising—Hieronymus Bosch’s Extracting the Stone of Madness4, Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros5, Diane Arbus’ Identical Twins, Roselle, NJ, 19676and close-ups of pieces from Téllez’s Chess installation.

Javier Téllez. Chess; installation view, San Francisco Art Institute. Courtesy of Kadist Art Foundation, San Francisco.

Chess (2014) was one of two works in Téllez’s exhibition Games Are Forbidden in the Labyrinth, which was on view from 2014 to 2015 at REDCAT Los Angeles and the San Francisco Art Institute. For the exhibit, Téllez created a complete chess set in which white pieces represented psychiatric patients or inmates and black pieces represented the surveillance institution. With bedpans for pawns and pieces of higher rank mounted on miniature hospital beds, Téllez reenacted historically significant chess games. On a side wall, Three Chess Problems: Carroll 1872, Duchamp 1943, Nabokov 1951 presented chess problems, drawn from texts by Lewis Carroll, Marcel Duchamp, and Vladimir Nabokov, in which white and black pieces are replaced by images from Téllez’s monograph. Accompanying Chess was Téllez’s 2010 film Dürer’s Rhinoceros, which presents fictionalized vignettes of daily life at Lisbon’s Hospital Miguel Bombarda, intercut with scenes of patients dragging a wooden rhinoceros around the hospital courtyard.

However, Téllez’s monograph, while filled with detailed photographs of Chess pieces, makes no mention of the exhibition itself. This context—the larger body of work—must be gleaned from the critical essays of Ruth Estevez and Dieter Roelstraete and foreword by Hesse McGraw that circumscribe Téllez’s text. Far from an exhibition catalog for Games Are Forbidden in the Labryrinth, Téllez’s monograph posits a new set of rules that dictate its own form of gameplay. If chess is an exercise in strategy, and Chess is an exposition of the structural violence underlying mental institutions, then Games Are Forbidden in the Labyrinth, or How Do You Play Chess? is a game of curation—of thoughtful groupings of question, answer, and image—intended to illuminate and alter the rules that govern Chess and institutionalization. 

What is a labyrinth?

A game is a closed system governed by internal rules. A labyrinth, on the other hand, is open—or more accurately, slightly open—with one or more points of access into and out of the external world. Téllez alludes to the mental institution as a kind of labyrinth in the opening set of his monograph–game7, pointing out the stark divide between those who do not have access to “the world outside the walls”8 and those who do.

Installation view of white king, queen, and bishop at San Francisco Art Institute. Courtesy of Kadist Art Foundation, San Francisco.

The human body is also a labyrinth9, with a meandering path from mouth to anus, as well as additional orifices that bring the outside in. Téllez explores the metaphor of body as labyrinth in his essay, using images such as Orcus mouth10, the grizzly opening of the Gardens of Bomarzo in Italy, as well as Jacque-Andre’s photograph Bouche11, a grainy, sexualized image of open lips with a tongue sticking out. Questions 10 to 18 in his monograph–game, which concern the movements of different types of chess pieces, are paired with images from Téllez’s Chess set, with each white piece featuring one or more bodily orifices.  

The white king presents a direct view of an anus, in front of which sits a bucket, presumably for waste, and inside of which rests a naked figurine with his arms crossed and his head between his knees. The white queen, anus pointed toward the ceiling, offers up her open womb. Twin figurines in fetal position rest inside; the inscription beneath them reads “Portrait of Anxiety/Depression, Nayarit Mexico, c. 400–800 A.D.” The white bishop is an open skull with colorful prismatic marbles spilling out. The white knight is the relief of a disembodied head with an opening instead of an ear, attached to a trunk of those marbles. The pawns—hospital bedpans—suggest waste passing through the body. The white rook, the most abstract of the metaphors, represents the patient as a player in a Swedish BRIO Game. 

Detail, packaging for BRIO of Sweden Labyrinth Game. Reprinted in Javier Téllez’s Games Are Forbidden in the Labyrinth (Amsterdam: Roma Publications, 2015), front cover, 39.

In the BRIO game, the outside walls of the maze are completely closed. The only way out of the maze is by falling down through one of the many trap holes that dot the game. The object of the game is to navigate a marble from one set point within the box to another while avoiding the holes. While the other white pieces suggest the porousness and vulnerability of the human body, the BRIO box suggests futility, a closed field of play in which the only escape is to lose the game.     

What does it mean to win? (Or how do you escape the labyrinth?)

Téllez’s Chess installation represents a fantasy in which patients are evenly matched with the institution. Each act of aggression by the institution can be met with a form of resistance by the patients. Yet in his monograph, Téllez forces readers to consider the question: In a closed system, where a patient cannot act but only re-act, is it really possible for the patients to win? 

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. The Yawner, 1771–81 (detail). Reprinted in Javier Téllez’s Games Are Forbidden in the Labyrinth (Amsterdam: Roma Publications, 2015), p133.

In Set 5212, a detail of a man crying out, with his mouth wide open, eyes squeezed shut, and expression caught between a scream and a cackle, is grouped with the question “What is meant by a ‘pin?’” In chess, a “pin” is a move in which an attacking piece traps a defending piece such that it cannot move without exposing a more valuable piece to capture—to pin a piece is to render it impotent. Téllez responds to this question metaphorically, with a passage from Goffman’s Asylums that describes the perverse logic by which a patient’s acts of resistance against the institution—“insolence, silence, sotto voce remarks, uncooperativeness, malicious destruction of interior decorations”13—are interpreted as further justification for her confinement. The institution “pins” the patient; she cannot win by resisting any more than she can with passivity. 

In Set 6214, the question “Do you have to say ‘Checkmate!’ when you mate your opponent?” is answered with a quote from Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony”: “‘No,’ said the officer again, pausing a moment as if to let the explorer elaborate his question… ‘There would be no point in telling him. He’ll learn it on his body.’”15 On the page facing this text is a detail from Hans Bellmer’s photograph Tenir au Frais, in which a smooth, irregularly shaped object is bound in string, which marks its surface with creases and indentations.16 Victory for the institution is absolute; the patient’s submission is written onto his body. 

Javier Téllez. Three Chess Problems: Carroll 1872, Duchamp 1943, Nabokov 1951, 2014 (Nabakov detail). Courtesy of REDCAT, Los Angeles.

As an act of curation, Téllez’s essay is particularly effective at drawing out parallels between the structured, brutal rules of chess and the dehumanizing logic of institutionalization. Weaving between clinical third-person observations and intimate first-person accounts of institutionalized confinement, it is unequivocally sympathetic toward patients. Far from the fatalistic antagonism of chess, Téllez’s curation game is an exercise in compassion, designed to take the reader on a journey through the treacherous terrain of madness—not to arrive unscathed on the other side, but to penetrate its very heart.


  1. Erving Goffman, Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (New Brunswick, NJ: 1961; Aldine Transaction, 2007), 7, 313.
  2. Javier Téllez, “Games Are Forbidden in the Labyrinth, or How Do You Play Chess.” Games Are Forbidden in the Labyrinth. (Amsterdam: Roma Publications, 2015), 36-37.
  3. Fred Reinfeld, How Do You Play Chess? (New York: Dover, 1972).
  4. Téllez, 43.
  5. Ibid, 123.
  6. See square C1 in Javier Téllez, Three Chess Problems (Carroll). Téllez, 167.
  7. Ibid, 27.
  8. Goffman, 7, 313. As cited in Téllez, 27.
  9. See Judith Butler’s Bodies that Matter and Ruth Estavez’s “Abandon All Reason, You Who Enter Here.”
  10. Téllez, 45.
  11. Ibid, 136.
  12. Ibid, 132-133.
  13. Goffman, Asylums, 306-307. As cited in Téllez, 152.
  14. Téllez, 152-153.
  15. Franz Kafka, “In the Penal Colony,” The Penal Colony: Short Stories and Short Pieces, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir (New York: Schocken, 1961), 197.
  16. See square B6 in Javier Téllez, Three Chess Problems (Nabokov). Téllez, 169.

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