That's the Way to Do It!: The Fairy Tale Life of Ydessa Hendeles (2017)
“That’s the Way to Do It!: The Fairy Tale Life of Ydessa Hendeles,” Momus, July 18, 2017
That’s the Way to Do It!: The Fairy Tale Life of Ydessa Hendeles
Let’s start with the premise that Ydessa Hendeles is an artist. And why shouldn’t we? Is it the fact that she started as a dealer, then became a collector while operating as a curator with her own foundation, that leads to a resistance to this category being applied to her for what she does now? You have to admit hers is a highly unusual trajectory, in fact unique. Not since Marcel Broodthaers abandoned poetry in 1964 to become an artist have we witnessed such a phenomenon.
And it is phenomenal. But why the resistance? Nobody asks anymore “what is a work of art?” because the term now exceeds categorization. But we are so artist-centric that the question “who is an artist?” is still limited in application. So what is it that makes Hendeles an artist?
My question is rhetorical because there is nowhere near the resistance – if any – there was fifteen years ago when Hendeles, with her 2002 Teddy Bear Project, started to work in a way that was distinguishable, for some, from merely being a curator. But it is useful, all the same, to rehearse her trajectory and change of identity – because becoming an artist is a transformation of identity. But it was not the first.
The first came when Hendeles closed her Toronto commercial gallery in 1988 to become a collector. Who needs to work for artists when you can work with them? That is, with them as you transform yourself again from dealer to collector into a curator with your own foundation. The final transformation in this process would be working as an artist, dispensing with both art and artists, the place where Hendeles is now. In favor of what, though? The answer, it seems, is objects or images that do not have the status of artworks but become transformed as a collective whole through the combined application of artists’ and curatorial strategies. A curator could become an artist by working so. This prepositional transition – from “for” to “with” to “as” – surely marks an identity transformation. But it is not being alone that makes an artist.
So I ask once again, what is it that makes Hendeles an artist? Here we need to look at another trajectory, that within curating itself. Initially, when Hendeles opened her foundation, she straddled two milieus: collecting and curating. We know that Hendeles’s strategy of purchasing for the purpose of exhibition made her fundamentally different from the laissez-faire habits of philanthropists who merely opened their private collections to the public. But aside from the fact that Hendeles had her own private foundation, did she also differ significantly from other curators? Hendeles believes that she has no curatorial predecessors, which may be the case, yet she participated in a generational shift among a prescient few, a curatorial turn in the 1990s towards inclusion of non-art artifacts in the elaboration of exhibition narratives and the application of artists’ strategies to these artifacts’ display. Such operations necessarily involved the archaeological excavation of the curator’s own subjectivity as a participant in his/her culture. Surprisingly, it was discovered that curating was autobiographical. Yet Hendeles had her own claim to originality, and the logic she followed eventually made her into an artist in a way that her generation of curators would, or could not, pursue.
I trace this, in part, to her incorporation of photography in her exhibition making, which also marks her shift from solo to group exhibitions at her foundation. But these were not of the large-scale variety Hendeles had already collected and shown, such as Thomas Ruff or Jeff Wall – but vintage prints (of which, unbeknownst to many, she had amassed a large collection), or photojournalism of a more recent era. A case in point was a large selection of collotypes from Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion. From its nineteenth-century vantage point, it introduced the exhibition Frames (1993), which included contemporary media works by Bill Viola, Gary Hill, and James Coleman; and sculpture by Guilio Paolini. As Richard Rhodes wrote, “suddenly what has been considered a study book on the physics of movement … is reshaped into a knot of gender stereotypes, practical jokes, and other scenarios of domination. Photographs that have been seen as emblems of modernity instead become emblems of a disarming human vulnerability that speak across time as an allegory of the human condition.” Twisted out of their time, uncannily commenting on the present, these images were untimely. Muybridge’s photographs/subjects functioned, not as an epigraph pointing to a theme that would unfold in the exhibition proper, but as an actant, to adopt this term used in the semiotic analysis of narratives. No longer standing alone, subsisting within its artistic intention, each artwork now functioned as an element within a construction as a whole; a story, let’s say, that went beyond an assembly of artworks operating under an exhibition theme. Each had a role to play under the direction of a curator – the narrator.
Another type of photograph got Hendeles there too – differently, however. I think of its effect as being equivalent to an iconic Barbara Kruger in Hendeles’s possession: “your gaze hits the side of my face.” It was her personal punctum. Photography struck her: Eddie Adams’s 1968 Murder of a Vietcong Suspect by Saigon Police Chief (Vietnam), for instance. Hendeles showed the whole series of eight, not just the single iconic image we have received journalistically. Not that the display of the whole series demystified the editorial selection as a lesson in semiotics. Far from it; its sequence was a ticking time bomb. It exploded the comfortable world of contemporary art partitioned off from the rest of visual culture.
Hendeles admitted to John Bentley Mays, “I felt more and more locked into the artworld.” Surprising words for one who assiduously sought her identity there. What was her foundation a manifestation of, after all?
Yet the first subject of curating is the curator herself, as she unpacks what the phrase “same difference” really means when one assembles disparate things. “I have to have some self-knowledge, and work through whatever I see and its impact on me – to interrogate myself as what is neurotic in here, what is not, what it tells us about our culture,” she admitted to Mays. Above all, it was a question of: “What does it mean to live today, in this moment”; “I’ve tried to look to popular culture and see what it means to be alive today.”
Hendeles was now in search of another identity, as a child of her times, more marked than most as a child of holocaust survivors, a witness to the violence of her century. She would chronicle it. The Teddy Bear Project would be her first full achievement. Here was the great leap: from mere curator assembling artworks to cultural diagnostician commenting on her troubled era.
Hendeles’s first grand gesture bearing on her own family’s history was her famous Teddy Bear Project, by name so much at odds, it seems, with the destructive scope of the Nazi era. People mused on the authorial status of this eccentric work that seemed to function much like an artwork in its typologies of display – so the question arose: was Hendeles now working as an artist? By the end of 2003, Mays had no doubt in his mind when he declared Hendeles “Artist of the Year” in the Globe and Mail year-end wrap-up. But was Hendeles there, too, in her heart and her mind?
A signature is an institution’s acknowledgement of authorship. The Teddy Bear Project was signed with Hendeles’s name, and it was the first of many to follow that were so signed. But what kind of authorship was this? Hendeles began to call this way of working “curatorial compositions.” There were now two signatories to an exhibition: the signing of the overall composition itself, and that of an assemblage within it, an “artwork” by Ydessa Hendeles – here the first, The Teddy Bears Project. As first shown at her foundation, its dizzying classification systems and claustrophobic, theatrical installation overwhelmed the accompanying “authentic” artworks participating equally under the title SameDIFFERANCE. At Munich’s Haus der Kunst, where the project was reinstalled in the exhibition Partners (2003), the balance between art and assemblage was restored. But very quickly thereafter, in two brilliant exhibitions at her foundation, the role of art was diminished. No longer were artifacts a vestibule to the main show, the artworks themselves were addenda to the exhibition. Indeed, in Predators & Prey (2006) and especially Dead! Dead! Dead! (2007), you could argue that not only were the objects of popular culture predominant but its apparatus determining. Dead! Dead! Dead! featured a real Punch and Judy theater from circa 1937, owned by Thomas Rose, who went under the stage name Professor Roselia. This naively charming but empty stage opened the exhibition and led to Hendeles’s Survivors (The Punch and Judy Project), dioramas of her extraordinary collection of somewhat sinister nineteenth- and twentieth-century Punch and Judy glove puppets. “That’s the way to do it!” you could imagine Punch saying – the puppeteer with a swazzle in her mouth – as the little man usually exclaimed after clobbering an opponent. “That’s the way to do it, Ydessa,” we might reply, meaning more than just you are a master of installation, as everyone believed, but with the swazzle now in our mouths, saying you are unmastering discourses, too. There was a little bit of Punch in Judy. You are a rebel, too.
And then Hendeles became an artist.
It took more than simply getting rid of artists from Hendeles’s curatorial compositions, though. So here we are at the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, where nothing is on display in The Milliner’s Daughter but the artist’s own fabrications. What Hendeles exhibits as an artist here is not a convincing intellectual construction, as we might expect from curating, but rather a fantastical parallel world allied to literature. Ah ha! So we must drop down the rabbit hole and follow Hendeles like Alice along this new journey. The reversals of infinite identity operating in Alice in Wonderland, the philosopher Gilles Deleuze tells us, have one consequence: “the contesting of Alice’s personal identity and the loss of her proper name … for the proper or singular name is guaranteed by the permanence of savoir.” The identity reversal Hendeles performs by becoming an artist likewise contests this savoir, or, as she might prefer to say, this power. She contests it, not theoretically or didactically, but as a storyteller.
Yet Hendeles’s curatorial compositions have always been narratives. What makes The Milliner’s Daughter different? I suggest that it is the fairy tale structure of her work. In fact, it is the fairy tale that makes Hendeles into an artist. So, let’s listen to this modern day Mother Goose.
In 2007, at the invitation of the director of the Marburger Kunstverein, Hendeles took a train from Documenta in Kassel, home of the Brothers Grimm, along the German Fairy Tale Route to Marburg, where the brothers studied and where Hendeles’s decimated “flock,” as she calls it – victims of the holocaust – congregated at the end of World War II. It’s where she was born in 1948. All these facts became elements of a new (fairy) tale she would tell based on an old one: the Puss in Boots story. The Puss in Boots tale was at the heart of the ensuing 2010 exhibition Marburg! The Early Bird!, and Church & State (The Puss in Boots Project) is reprised as the inaugural, and guiding, display at the Power Plant. It is the key, one of many keys in Hendeles’s artworks, we must turn to understand the turn she made in becoming an artist.
Hendeles called her Marburg exhibition an “imaginary children’s fable” based on the “story of one particular family, from the perspective of its only child.” On the model of the fairy tale as applied to her family history, we can allocate roles or functions: her family is the victim; the Nazis the villains; Hendeles is the hero. She appropriates the Puss in Boots tale and retells it through its known images (Gustave Doré illustrations allied to a fictionalized museum-type diorama), telling her own story in the process, whereby the host fairy tale becomes an allegory of her own.
Hendeles’s version does not follow the invariant sequencing of the traditional fairy tale; in fact, instead of initiating the action, the hero (Hendeles) appears outside of it. Furthermore, Hendeles conflates the hero (herself) with one of the other characters, the cat, who functions in Puss in Boots as a magical agent. (“Like the artist, the cat as mediator may leverage opportunities wherever they can be found,” Hendeles wrote in the notes to Marburg! The Early Bird!) Conflating two functions, hero Hendeles is the character who thus magically enables the story, which concludes seemingly with the family’s success once it migrates to Canada. But the real story is the fact of its telling. And it is only told because the Canadian Girl (a name of one of the works in Marburg) has become an artist herself. What a fairy tale in itself!
Transitioning to being an artist, and assembling objects and images that are not artworks, means Hendeles need not attend to the artist’s intentions for an artwork. Rather, she is free to play with the meanings and associations of popular culture – that, moreover, are interchangeable. But fairy tales are public, not private; they are anonymous, not signed. This is the way, after all, that Hendeles affiliated herself to Mother Goose when she wrote, “One common element in her history is that she has always been a collector or curator, whether of the original folk tales or of the nursery rhymes … In the case of the rhymes, especially, she is the curator of some of the oldest attempts to clarify and codify human experience.”
So stated, Hendeles suggests that, in her case, being an artist does not preclude still being a collector and curator. She is a collector when she tracks down and purchases collectibles. She is a curator when she assembles them. But above all, she is an artist when she fabricates her tale based on them. One should be wary of thinking that she thereby redeems degraded or forgotten detritus in her installations, on the order of the fairy tale elevation of Cinderella, for instance. No, these objects have led a privileged life, too, each with a provenance and a pedigree. But once in Hendeles’s possession, they pursued a secret life, beginning to deviate her curatorial practice for many years even before The Teddy Bear Project – until they could be seen, in the right hands, to be bona fide artistic materials.
The stories Hendeles collects, however, are from the public domain, which speak to us all. Thus, in her first full outing as an artist at Berlin’s Galerie Johann König, in 2012, she called upon Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” adducing the mariner’s plight, after needlessly killing the albatross, to that of the Wandering Jew and Jack O’Lantern, figures of society’s stigmatizing banishments. Once more Gustave Doré’s illustrations are masterfully blown up to succinctly visualize the tale, juxtaposed again to a large, beautifully-designed, custom-made vitrine. Such vitrines are a constituent part of Hendeles’s artistic practice and their impenetrable virtual storefronts are not so much paeans to luxury commodity fetishism as much as they are shiny reminders of the exclusionary position of an outsider looking in (one of Hendeles’s main themes). Inside the vitrine, Hendeles has scaled up a rare mechanical toy in her possession into a deluxe, one-of-a-kind, hand-machined, streamlined fantasy aero-car, its size limited by its wingspan matching that of the Wandering or White-winged albatross. Such a car summarizes Hendeles’s Alice-in-Wonderland obsession with scale, but also with automatons (she has a large collection of mechanical toys). For these wind-up automatons are only animated by the keys that accompany them. In fairy tales, the key unlocks secret riches but is, too, a symbol of interdiction that propels the story along: unpredictable consequences follow upon transgressing the forbidden (so the mariner learns). And beware, wound up, soulless automatons sometimes become demonically destructive creatures.
If ever there was a fairy tale title, The Milliner’s Daughter is one: the prototypical miller’s son being the owner of Puss in Boots; the milliner’s daughter being Hendeles, you might say. Perhaps the title is Hendeles’s affectionate nod to her mother Dorothy and her saving profession: “my mother’s sewing skills in part helped save her life in Auschwitz,” she writes. So Hendeles nestled a unique collection of nineteenth-century wooden milliner lasts (forms used to shape hats) into From her wooden sleep… when it traveled from London to Tel Aviv and now to Toronto where it performs as the stunning centerpiece of the Power Plant.
It’s hard to describe the installation’s uncanny effect of a hallowed space or to know where to begin its inventory. Let’s say that the display is not comprised of, but that it congregates 150 antique artist’s manikins of all scales, and stages them in a bizarre scenario. Why are they gathered here? What do they attend to, or witness – what testimony or trial? It’s open to interpretation. I know that Hendeles, in her concern for “the power dynamics of the group in relation to the individual,” sees the young girl sitting aside in her miniature armchair as a disempowered figure in contrast to the life-size man of power preaching from the front. But equally, I see the patient audience of this congregation in their church-like pews as waiting to awake from their wooden sleep, like Pinocchio or the Dutch Dolls, and rise from their societal exclusion to the acknowledgement of what we can read in those sincere placards of the American Civil Rights Movement: I am a Man. Can’t you see, though their facial and bodily delineations are Caucasian, that these are brown and black people: the color of the wood? What else are we to think when Hendeles’s scenario opens with the music of Debussy’s “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk,” proceeds to antique minstrel banjos, and continues with the illustrated children’s book that introduced the Golliwogg, companion to the wooden Dutch dolls who awake Christmas eve to their lively adventures? Artworks have the power to resonate in ways artists cannot control.
As she had in Tel Aviv, Hendeles added a work to the Power Plant installation, complementing From her wooden sleep… Before seeing the exhibition I had wondered how such obsessively articulated installations as Hendeles makes could be brought together in an overarching display. Wisely, she chose to employ her crew of manikins again in Blue Beard, the eponymous tale about keys to forbidden doors – but as dramatically effective as the installation was, and as expertly the stage set, there is the danger that Hendeles’s repertory ensemble becomes merely illustrational, animated at the whim of its maker.
In fantasyland we expect to be enchanted time after time with fairy tales that are different – but exactly the same, for this is the nature of the fairy tale. Such are the expectations built up through Hendeles’s unprecedented body of work as an artist: we want no less a wonder next time.