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Ydessa Hendeles and the Articulate Manikin

This is an article from the Summer 2015 issue of Canadian Art.

In Ydessa Hendeles’s powerful exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, “From her wooden sleep…,” (curated by Philip Larratt-Smith) we meet a room of manikins, dolls and other figures, mostly wooden, arranged in precise tableaux. Many of them seem to stare at us and ignore us at the same time, self-possessed and unnerving. We are also given the opportunity to stare at ourselves in an array of distorting fairground mirrors, in which we are stretched and compressed to ludicrousness, and in ordinary mirrors, in which we may hope to look better. We regard ourselves with an intermittent, disconcerting awareness that perhaps we have become the exhibit in this wooden world for the benefit of manikin figures that stiffly and mutely resemble us.

What at first we might see as a proliferation of similar things becomes diverse as we encounter enigmatic objects in mysterious proximity: artists’ articulated and sometimes skeletal manikins, anatomical models with exposed organs, milliners’ models arrayed by size (down to odd little knobs for doll heads), simple “peg” dolls, a pair of exquisite Renaissance male and female articulated figures and a large, ambiguous, bulbous object that turns out to be a wooden costume nose for commedia dell’arte trickster Pulcinella. The manikins elide with the category of art objects for which they were once the models. Similarly, the display elements, which include a crudely made industrial stand, a refectory table, a sculptor’s stand with a wooden grooved post and old-fashioned vitrines (formerly of the Victoria and Albert Museum), have their own entries in the exhibition catalogue. In this parallel world, the hierarchies of what is the model and what the finished work of art, of what is secondary support structure and what is worthy of display, are eliminated.

The guide to the exhibition includes Hendeles’s histories of each object and a numbered map of the exhibits, suggesting that there is a particular order to the unfolding narrative. The implied path is not the usual circuit around the gallery, however, but instead encourages us to zigzag from one side, or one end, to the other. As we move through and past exhibits that are not yet on our numbered itinerary, and as we read about each exhibit’s provenance and histories, we build up a number of detours and complex associations. The effect is often to propel us off course, to send us back to things we’ve already seen, or to be drawn to displays out of sequence. There is a nice tension between the path set out for us and the divergent paths we take.

To one side, just before we enter the room, there is a small black-and-white gelatin-silver photograph that might be of an airbrushed 1930s movie star. In fact, it is an image of a girl doll reading, by American outsider artist Morton Bartlett. In the guide, Hendeles notes that Bartlett, who was orphaned as a child, made lifelike plaster dolls of children and adolescents, but that this hobby, which might seem “less than innocent”—he himself acknowledged that a “proper” hobby provided an outlet for “urges that do not find expression in other channels”—did not stray beyond photographing the dolls for a “family album.” This little photograph opens questions about the lines we draw between living and still and real and representation; of desire projected onto inanimate objects; of art and other forms of making as a process of sublimating unacceptable urges into socially acceptable products; and of the unsettling constellation of allure, consolation and phobia in our encounter with dolls, manikins and other surrogates and simulacra.

The reading doll suggests a bedtime story, and this exhibition evokes the strange apparitions, alarms and enchantments of children’s tales. One story is explicitly present, in the form of four first-edition open copies of Bertha and Florence Kate Upton’s The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a “Golliwogg” (1895), which begins, “’Twas on a frosty Christmas Eve/When Peggy Deutchland woke/From her wooden sleep.” In the tradition of tales of toys that magically come to life, two Dutch peg dolls (dressed in American stars and stripes) encounter a golliwog. They are at first horrified by this “blackest gnome,” but quickly come to admire him, and spend their annual night of freedom with him, engaging in escapades such as a snowball fight. Golliwogg proves to be a gallant, brave and kind hero.

Hendeles’s notes situate the golliwog in his 20th-century historical fortunes: banned by the Nazis for racist reasons, he has subsequently come to be understood as a servile projection of a stereotype generated by dominant white culture. In that light, the peg dolls’ surname, Deutchland, seems retrospectively ominous. Exhibiting this story today is challenging. In the character of Golliwogg, Hendeles shows a figure that cannot now be shown. (The wall text at the entrance advises that “this exhibition contains historic material that some visitors may find challenging.”)

Given that history, the comically awkward tumbles of the Dutch peg dolls in the Upton story seem to be more darkly echoed here in the tangled arrangement of a skeletal manikin crunched into a vitrine. Others seem confined: under tables, emerging from a narrow box or positioned as if in an uncovered grave or as slaves in holds. In taking the golliwog back to what she refers to as the Uptons’ intended “inclusive and utopian” vision, Hendeles raises the uncomfortable complexities of the individual’s need for recognition and community, however compromised it may be by the necessity to submit to odious cultural ideals.

There are intimations of other unsettling histories that frame the Uptons’ Golliwogg. One has to do with artists’ borrowings from African American folk culture that has its origins in slavery. The audio element of the exhibition is Debussy’s jaunty 1908 piano-roll recording of Golliwog’s Cakewalk in ragtime syncopation. That Golliwog’s Cakewalk comes from a suite called the Children’s Corner conveys a return to the intensity of pleasurable childhood experience, but there is a darker element. In the cakewalk, slaves imitated and exaggerated their masters’ manners and formal dances, often for the masters’ amusement: a complicated mutual scrutiny. A further complication arises as Debussy interrupts the ragtime by inserting the “Tristan Chord” from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, as if succumbing to the sophisticated fashion for Wagner at the time. Then, as if to undercut that high-art tendency, Debussy follows each Wagner motif with passages imitating the sounds of a plucked banjo.

This neatly summarizes the ambiguities in early 20th-century Modernism, as artists borrowed from African and African American cultures, problematically imagining that in doing so they could retrieve an authenticity of emotion and depth of expression that had existed outside, or before, the conventions of western European culture. In her deft weaving of associations, Hendeles hangs up a row of five mute wooden mountain banjos, folk instruments from the southern United States that were made from hardwood, vellum and steel. The catalogue notes the late 19th-century adaptation of this popular folk instrument to classical. The banjos embody “primitive” bricolage, the technique of cobbling together unattainable instruments or machines from found materials, and points to the ways that Modernist artists in turn adapted bricolage (Picasso’s Cubist guitars and violin made of scraps of wood, metal, cardboard and wire, for example). These wooden banjos resonate with that reciprocal history.

It is impossible to give a full account of the marvellous objects and tableaux in the exhibition, but one focal arrangement is immediately striking. It is significant that we have to open a door to enter, that we have no preview of what we will encounter. It enhances the sense of moving through an airlock to a separate world. We approach the central, first-encountered installation, The Audience, from behind, as if we are arriving late to something already in progress. Is this a theatre, medical or dramatic? A trial, a lecture, a religious service or any place where we must sit silently in rows? As we move forward, we see that wooden manikins of various sizes and relative scale are sitting on 18 Arts and Crafts oak settles made for children (one original, 17 custom-made pieces), whose straight backs seem to enforce sitting up and paying attention. That sense of deportment is borne out by a tall-backed correction chair elsewhere in the exhibition, meant to impose the conventions of good posture on a child. The furniture supporting The Audience is in fact crucial. Hendeles’s notes trace a history of the Arts and Crafts movement, from the idealistic medievalizing return to handcraft of William Morris through to the folk culture of Nazism. The latter, of course, favoured a rustic völkisch look, but specialized in the industrialized machinery of death. This information inflects the group on each little settle. While they are wildly discrepant in scale—child-sized parents and parent-sized children—Hendeles points out that the manikins are arranged according to some shared characteristic or detail, as if a family. The apparent inclusion afforded by that taxonomy of a family sits uneasily with the Nazi phobia of difference.

The central figure of the exhibition and object of the audience’s scrutiny is a life-sized articulated artist’s manikin with a blankly radiant face, arranged in a graceful, casual contrapposto stance, as if the model for an Apollo sculpture. He stands for the idealized, normative proportions and beauties that once informed classicism in art, yet he is poignant. As the object of so much scrutiny, he is the tragicomic manikin version of the Greek god: his mechanical parts are on show, and, ignominiously, a key is stuck into the top of his head. It is there to secure his pose, to bolt him in place. That is, he is captive, another slave doomed to being looked at but unable to act.

Located near the exit of the exhibition, but numbered in Hendeles’s guide as somewhere in the middle, is a tableau in an exquisite custom-made oval vitrine: Marburg Madonna (2007–08). On a travelling salesman’s miniature version of an obstetrician’s examination table, a small, wooden, articulated female manikin is subjected to the glare of a full-scale doctor’s lamp. The first effect of this scene of scrutiny is ominous. Here, as elsewhere, Hendeles’s rich and lucid text becomes part of the exhibition, as she acknowledges her own life and starting points. She was born in a hospital in Marburg, a city that had been a collection point for art looted by Nazis. She and her mother, an Auschwitz survivor, received excellent medical care there. There is understated irony in the fact that the child born at that hospital should now be an artist. Marburg Madonna resonates with other things in the exhibition: the revealed internal organs of anatomical models of a pregnant woman and of a bee, and a tiny medical instructional model of a pelvis and a newborn baby. In the latter case, the baby’s arms, Hendeles notes, are spread out to allow the chest to expand to permit breathing, but, at the same time, the posture is that of crucifixion, in which outspread arms compress the chest and cause asphyxiation. In this constellation of objects and allusions, there is an uneasy mirroring of injury and care, death and birth, of ending overlapping with beginning.

With respect to such overlays and resemblances, there is perhaps another story implicit in “From her wooden sleep…”: E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann (1816), as retold by Sigmund Freud in his essay “The ‘Uncanny.’” In it, a young man’s passion for an automaton is afflicted by a fear going back to the bogeyman of childhood, the “Sandman” who steals the eyes of children who will not go to sleep. The automaton’s glass eyes and fixed stare become a phobic focus. Freud analyses this dread, which goes back to childhood, a time when we treat dolls like living people and “do not distinguish at all sharply between living and lifeless objects.” In Freud’s psychoanalytic telling, the confusion of real person and automaton has to do with the “uncanny,” a state in which false recognitions and doubles crop up again and again, in which the strange seems suddenly familiar and vice versa. That repetitive confusion of the living and the inanimate is also associated with the “death drive,” the human desire to retreat from stimulation to a pre-animate, sensationless condition. In this exhibition, the multitude of staring wooden creatures might acknowledge the repetitions of the uncanny, but that is countered by the exuberance of their proliferation, which points to a human capacity for creating such objects. The enclosed room of the exhibition suggests a childhood world both frightening and consoling, a pocket universe or place “through the looking glass” in which the social and material nature of our everyday world is mirrored, duplicated and inverted. It is a paracosm in which, transmuted into both dead wood and created objects, the capacity for imagination is opened out as much as anxieties of being scrutinized and evaluated are evoked.

Hendeles exhibits this collection as a homage to the act of collecting and role of the collector, who must assemble not only the best or most rare objects, but also the most complete collection of whatever is sought after. Her catalogue entries about individual objects may take into account the significance of their former collectors. This exhibition, she tells us, is a knowing conflation of curating and artmaking. She also refers to her own earlier exhibitions, with their different iterations of objects and working out of ideas. That is, Hendeles acknowledges the constellation of her roles—as curator, collector and artist—and thoughtfully opens the phenomenon to us, inviting our acknowledgment of our own roles.

The exhibition opens many questions of social formation, of inclusion and exclusion, of difference and resemblance, of community and oppression, of the power of surveillance, of conformity and appraisal and of troubled individual and cultural recollections of the past, conceived as a historical childhood. In this world, things are transmuted into wood, but also into light and strong cast shadows, complicated by the glass of mirrors and vitrines that reflect other reflections. This might be understood as an analogy to the disruptions of temporality and linear history by forces of memory and of repressed memories brought to light. Hendeles writes that the figures in vitrines might seem to exist “as if in a bubble of memory from the past.” This bubble is a particular metaphor, suggesting that the rigid vitrine is only provisionally contained or sealed off, liable to drifting, rising and, perhaps like all bubbles, in defiance of any capacity to contain its exhibits, likely to pop in a strangely freeing metamorphosis.

Perturbing questions of what and how we see, and how we are seen, of how we scale ourselves to the dominant model, and of how the dominant model shapes and perhaps warps us, are things that are only partially knowable. But Hendeles opens up ways of looking. Even in a fairground mirror, even where normative proportion dissembles itself, we may be open to the project of self-scrutiny. “From her wooden sleep…” jars our sense of who it is who sees and what it is that is seen. It may be that the “wooden sleep” aligns with the retreat to a pre-animate stilled state. But there is at the same time in Hendeles’s exhibition a powerful inducement to wake up.

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