The art of German-born Canadian Ydessa Hendeles intersects with her parallel collecting and curatorial practices. Playing with the conventions of museum display with her arrangements of selected artworks, artifacts, and original sculptures, Hendeles interweaves personal narratives with complex histories of group identity and social exclusion.
Her retrospective at the Power Plant was titled “The Milliner’s Daughter.” This reference to the occupation of her mother, a Holocaust survivor, also conveyed the overarching concern with childhood that was evident throughout the exhibition. Through seven multipart works, each of which occupied an entire gallery or a transitional space (like the upstairs corridor or downstairs clerestory), Hendeles created a mercurial environment that alternately suggested a church, a courtroom, a theater, a cabinet of curiosities, and a hall of mirrors.
The last of these came by way of seventeen distortion mirrors, once used in a fairground attraction, hanging on the walls for her installation “From her wooden sleep. . . ” (2013), which also includes roughly 150 articulated wood mannequins of various sizes, as well as vitrines filled with antique toys and children’s literature. Some of the smaller figures, such as two sixteenth-century Gliederpuppen jointed with catgut, are displayed in an old museum vitrine, while others are housed in a vitrine Hendeles designed with curved glass that multiplies viewers’ reflections like the distortion mirrors. The main group consists of seventy-nine mannequins, of various degrees of lifelikeness and carved detail, that sit on benches arranged in six rows of three. The figures are posed so that their collective (and vaguely accusatory) gaze appears to be directed at another upright mannequin, positioned outside the group on a triangular pedestal.
Several references in the installation to the figure of Golliwogg, a black rag doll with minstrel-like features popular at the turn of the century, connect this haunting arrangement to a broader cultural context. A recording of Claude Debussy’s “Golliwogg’s Cake Walk” (1908) plays on a loop, and four open copies of The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a “Golliwogg” (1895), the popular children’s book illustrated by Florence Kate Upton, lay open in a vitrine. Hendeles displays these books alongside two Dutch dolls with round lathe-turned heads and spindly limbs. Waking from their “wooden sleep” in the book, such dolls meet the titular Golliwogg and embark on a sweet childhood adventure in a fantasy world that nonetheless reproduces the real one’s racial hierarchies.
In another installation, “THE BIRD THAT MADE THE BREEZE TO BLOW,” 2006–11, Hendeles offers an expansive three-part meditation on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1797–98), which tells of an undead seaman cursed to wander the earth for shooting an albatross that helped his ship navigate free of Antarctic ice. A huge teardrop-shaped vitrine at the center of the installation houses a greatly enlarged version of a flying toy car manufactured in American-occupied Nuremberg around the time of Hendeles’s birth to Polish-Jewish parents in Marburg, Germany. Fifteen-and-a-half times bigger than the original toy, Hendeles’s version has a wingspan equal to that of the wandering albatross. Remote activation causes a mechanical lever to descend on the back of the car, the wings to unfold from the sides, and the propeller to emerge from the nose and spin noisily for nearly two minutes.
Two related works surround the gigantic toy. For THE BIRD THAT MADE THE BREEZE TO BLOW (PART ONE–PART ELEVEN), 2011, Hendeles reproduced eleven of Gustave Doré’s engravings for a posthumous edition of Coleridge’s poem as large and beautifully detailed pigment prints hung on nearby walls. THE BIRD THAT MADE THE BREEZE TO BLOW (Hallowe’en Girl), 2006, is a large photograph of a painted iron doorstop in the shape of a girl dressed as a ghost and holding a jack-o’-lantern. Intended as a holiday novelty and a depiction of childhood innocence, the doorstop nonetheless remains tied to the jack-o’-lantern’s origins in an Irish folk tale about Stingy Jack, a figure doomed to wander the earth forever after tricking the Devil into barring him from hell. Hendeles’s world is populated by such wanderers, and her installations suggest how such old narratives of banishment and exclusion persist in the present.