There is a fine line between being an object and a person. And it’s hard to know when it’s been traversed. The difficulty lies in the question that prods us so insistently, unremitting: are we fully inhabiting our lives? Are we here, or are we scratching at the surface, looking in? Will this body, this life, ever feel like the present?
Ydessa Hendeles, an artworld maverick who has recently shifted from inhabiting other present-tenses (collector, curator) to a more centralized one, artist, has taken a lot with her to arrive to this place. Stocking her recent exhibition at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) with artist manikins, antique vitrines, wooden tables, warped mirrors, banjos, and children’s storybooks, she has composed a tableau vivant whose distorting surfaces invite our reflection and alternative views of ourselves, our history, our time. Hendeles has arrived to the threshold between here and there, between you and me, to report on our liminal experience; on the work it requires to arrive at our selves.
Hendeles’s composition, titled From her wooden sleep…, (and curated by Philip Larratt-Smith) is introduced by Morton Barlett’s unpublished photograph of a young doll reading. The model is one of fifteen Bartlett sculpted and photographed over thirty years, and a part of the family that, as collector and dealer Marion Harris suggests, the sculptor “always wanted.” (Many will remember these figures from Massimiliano Gioni’s The Encyclopedic Palace, at the 55th Venice Biennale.) Bartlett was orphaned at a young age, and remained a recluse for most of his life. With no formal training, he spent nearly a year creating each one of his dolls that have come to be understood as his surrogate family members. It was only after his death that his work was discovered and championed by Harris, subsequently entering the larger context of “Outsider Art.”
As an opening gesture, this photograph’s presence (and all its attendant history) pulses with the dualities that vein Hendeles’s past exhibitions: the artist and the amateur, the single and the crowd, the collector and her subjects. Straining through these binaries is a Hendeles constant: the chord of apartness, of something strange, or dissonant. So goes the work of another author and autodidact, one who has developed a singular practice comprised of trace-laden signs that blink their intimate signifiers. Like any innate curator, Hendeles, even in this role as artist, is never quite resolved in sorting out her objects.
Moving from Bartlett’s photograph to the main theater space, we enter a ceremony that’s been suspended in time. A congregation of over 150 artist manikins (culled between 1520 and 1930) is assembled around a single female form. Seated in rows of children-sized pews, placed on refectory tables or on artists’ stands, the manikins are arranged into typologies characterized by physical features, historical dates, or places of production. Recalling Bartlett’s photograph and the resemblance between his forms, Hendeles has arranged her lay-figures into families. These groupings are formed and further defined by their visible similarities, such as sharing fingers that are carved in the round; wide eyes, or dimpled chins.
For the most part, each one’s gaze descends upon the figure at the front of the room, but there are exceptions. A few of the manikins bearing distinct physical qualities – such as the 19th-century upholstered Italian forms whose heads are made of hand-painted papier-mâché – are tightly-bound in vitrines, where their limbs, heads, and torsos are grossly contorted. Like the single female form, these figures stand apart from the families and tribes that congregate here. They look pained and uneasy despite their voided faces.
This feeling of distortion is further amplified by the series of fairground mirrors placed along the walls in which the viewer can see herself projected, out of step and misinterpreted. This has always been one of Hendeles’s greatest strengths, her ability to compose images from arrangements such that our ulterior reflections came shuddering through. She seeks our empathy, inviting us as someone else through forms that might disturb.
Smaller bodies rest on a flat railway cart, positioned a few steps from our cut-away protagonist. The wagon is placed on a diagonal that proposes a sense of movement, as if, after we leave, it might continue on its way. This image is familiar, of course; visions of Hitler’s “others” packed into trains and sent to their deaths or African slaves folded into containers that ferry the dark Atlantic. Is this the fate of Hendeles’s silent idol? Suddenly the blurriness of this ceremony comes into focus. Are we bearing witness to an auction or a trial? Are these vitrine-held forms the vision of an outsider, or the narrative of one from within, one who sways, buffeted by the ever-madding crowds?
This sense of a procession towards uncertainty is extended in audible form by composer Charles Debussy’s “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk,” which serenades Hendeles’s scene. Although embodying a child-like sound, a jaunty quality, this piece of music carries dark undertones throughout its history. Debussy took inspiration from Florence Kate Upton’s children’s book, The Adventure of Two Dolls and a Golliwogg, whose first editions are displayed in a vitrine and serve as the source for the exhibition’s title. As Hendeles rigorously points out in her exhibition notes, the “Golliwogg” was a ragdoll made in the image of a black-faced minstrel who became the heroic protagonist of a popular book series at the turn of the twentieth-century. The cakewalk is understood as a dance that evolved out of oppression, developed by black slaves on plantations who would swagger to banjo music, and be awarded a cake for the best strut. In both cases, the Golliwogg and the cakewalk began to pervade popular culture.
Influenced by cultures both high and low, Debussy composed a piece of music that connected popular taste with high European aesthetics, and to a certain degree, helped make the African-American culture born of American society visible through music. By the mid-twentieth century the children’s book writer, Enid Blyton, rendered the beloved Golliwogg as a threatening character. This shift from hero to villain brought into question the character’s racist undertones, eventually reducing his popularity to notoriety, a figurehead for one of black history’s most obsequious taboos. Heard as the soundtrack to Hendeles’s life-size music box, specially composed for the ICA, the leitmotif carries undertones of transformation, misuse, and misunderstanding, echoed by the vacancy – or possibility – that Hendeles’s chosen media (manikins, mirrors, vitrines, and unpublished photographs) is poised for reception.
From her wooden sleep…. embodies a contemporary hall of mirrors, a vessel for transformation in which we might observe the present from the perspective of the past. Hendeles, ever-generous with her objects, takes the burdened Golliwogg with her, as she takes us, too. We mine her forms, seeking ourselves. We find images we know, distorted reflections that shift from the depths to the forefront of our memory. Hendeles’s historical and vacant manikin families, their wooden, anamorphic bodies, and her singled-out female form, begin to bear down with projected weight as they simulate pictures of the captured and the shot down. Those communities that are bonded by power or bounded by loss. Presented at a time in which such images flood our screens, Hendeles’s composition is a still and meaningful reminder of that line between our objecthood and our selves. Between them and us. This is an image of our human need to belong, and our urgent want to stand apart. It’s an image of the space between these, where misplacing our sympathies, or our confusion, can wring injurious loss.