The viewer gets the chills attending Ydessa Hendeles’ latest exhibition. Three galleries of the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art have morphed into the kingdom of Freud’s concept of the uncanny: There’s a potent sense of something familiar yet incongruous.
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A Canadian gallery owner, researcher, curator and artist, Hendeles is also a collector of objects, which she usually exhibits as tableaux vivants (“living pictures”). So, instead of an archaic, typological, distant icy look, the result is highly unusual symbolic and narrative dispositions.
“From her wooden sleep...” was first mounted at the London-based Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in 2015 and is now “expanded in a site-specific installation” for Tel Aviv. She exhibits collections of articulated wooden dolls, distorting fair mirrors, antique furniture, and tailoring and instrumental accessories, arranged in a mix like the frozen set of a stage drama – mise-en-scènes that seem poised to burst into life.
Hendeles creates a type of alternative universe to the reality we know, a carved-to-measure wooden humanity with strange magical power.
The entrance hall displays an 1850 tavern table with a miniature painting, in a carved gilded frame, of Jesus on the way to Calvary. It’s flanked by Christian wood panels from the 17th century simulating the Veil of Veronica, which was offered to Jesus on the Via Dolorosa in order to wipe his sweat, leaving an imprint of his face on the veil. On the lower floor is a museum showcase containing a life-size articulated doll with a rosary. Another doll sits on the floor next to her, like a guardian of the dead.
The central space contains a large installation teeming with objects (more than 150). The overall look is mesmerizing, exuding an enchanting, primal quality. In the middle are artists’ wooden manikins that sit on benches arranged in rows. They look like pupils in a classroom or believers in the church of a religion whose laws and observances are unknown, mysterious and mystical – or like a class that’s engaged in an extremely material ceremony aimed at achieving some sort of spiritual uplift.
The dolls are of various sizes, ranging from human scale to miniatures. Their sources are diverse and are from different centuries (the oldest dates from 1520). Their combinations create different sub-cells (which are not necessarily families), but are all from the same material.
This unity of duplicates creates a jolting effect of cloning, of a tribe of twins. The exhibition “casts the viewer in the role of outsider – or, at least, a bystander – in a closed society defined by some basic characteristics the viewer does not share,” curator Suzanne Landau notes. She adds that the artist’s wooden manikins “create a recognizable social order. Manikins of the same size with recognizably similar countenances, for example, might become ‘twins’ or positioned in the installation to make pseudo-families.”
Three dolls sit on one of the benches, their feet planted on the ground, one hand leaning on the arm of the bench; the middle doll hugs a head that’s lying in her lap. In another corner, Hendeles has positioned a large male doll on a big chair, a smaller child doll on a folding chair and a miniature doll that lies, limbs spread, on a table, creating a bizarre wake ritual.
Among exhibits along the side are a French birdcage from 1850; various display cases (with hidden drawers, rear mirrors and disassembling parts) that contain cavalry dolls from France, 1890; little Dutch dolls designed for playing with; a collection of wooden dummies for milliners; and a miniature model of an obstetrician’s examination table that was used by traveling salesmen at the beginning of the 20th century.
Playing in the background is “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” the sixth and most popular movement of Claude Debussy’s 1908 suite “Children’s Corner,” in a digital recording of piano rolls that the composer himself played in 1912.
Deciphering the exhibition
Hendeles seems out to reconstruct a premodern consciousness, in which physical distortions, abnormal phenomena, terrifying transparencies and imitations of life act as a mirror to the psyche, shaking it out of its slumber. The viewer passes through a hermetic, self-contained universe – like a giant in a garden of inanimate mannequins, a visitor to a frozen fair, to a kingdom of the dead filled with bodies, skeletons and skulls. Though the visitor is external to the tableau vivant, he is also part of it: His image is reflected back at him from all sides by mirrors that multiply, invert and distort, make his body fluid and tense, squashed or elongated, diminished or expanded, in a kind of self-hallucination that complements and contradicts the fantasy of the dolls’ coming to life. Now, having taken a childlike pleasure in the untrue or the almost true, the viewer has passed from the dimension of reason to the world of fantasy, seen his demonic double, laughed like a guest at a folksy carnival and taken fright at his narcissistic lusts and flawed morality.
Together, the subtle mechanisms (advanced for their time), imitation of humanness and hundreds of hollow wooden eyes create an uncanny effect, involving a mimetic need related to the soul of the objects. The Veil of Veronica is a possible key to deciphering the exhibition’s unsettling object fixation and animism. The mythic veil is a transition object that bespeaks a partial resurrection – a form of communication with the dead and the remnant of the actual body that was burned into the object. With its help, it’s possible to see the totality of Hendeles’ manually carved and hewn universe as a collection of survivors, maintaining kinship relations with the makers of the objects or as Christian leaders of vows; figurines related to supplications and requests from the living, who attribute to them miraculous and supernatural powers.
The detailed description of the exhibits is just as important as their staging and positioning. Each item has a genealogy and technical specifications, biography and uses. For example: “Artist’s articulated manikin, French, 1800. Hand-carved pinewood, with wooden ball joints and dowels; incised eyebrows; carved drapery around waist; painted head and face; fully articulated fingers.”
“Everything has a history and reason to be here, though the story is complicated. You’ll never get to the bottom of it because history is bottomless, though it is filled with echoes. I don’t feel quite myself among these wooden people with their complications and their implacable wooden expressions,” Adrian Searle wrote in The Guardian about last year’s ICA show.
The meticulous attention to technical and material precision is like the pleasure and pride taken by antique dealers in finding and collecting rare items, and then showcasing their room of wonders. But the objects are also deconstructed from within with the aid of facts. The mirrors distort because they are concave and convex; the differences in hues stem from the different types of wood and intensity of their polish; the vivacity of the dolls has its source in the carving of the facial expressions or the coloring of the pupils of the eyes, in anatomical elaboration that includes numerous joints.
Like the creepy world of dolls by German artist Hans Bellmer (1902-1975), Hendeles’ world – with its oppressive, carved wooden presence – remains totally unclear. Is it ruled by a contemporary yen for collecting, guided by the need to create an archive? Or by a childlike impulse to create mise-en-scènes and narratives?
The researcher’s stance seems to give way to that of the storyteller. The exhibition is like art therapy, a glimpse into a dominating private pathology. The active and richly imaginative involvement in organizing the collection, the creative intervention in arranging the postures, gives rise to the feeling that Hendeles has not abandoned the urge to play with a dollhouse as much as she’s showing us a chapter in pre-modernist material culture, in which the objects of that culture enchant and subdue her, functioning like charms. Total kitsch? A hypnotic summer exhibition? It’s hard to decide.