BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 22 OCT 09
Featured in
Issue 127

The Ydessa Syndrome

The shows curated by one Toronto-based collector are so good that others pale in comparison

BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 22 OCT 09

Just when I thought I was getting better, the symptoms are coming back. I’ve got something more chronic than swine flu. Although I’m only a doctor of literature, let me describe the symptoms: irritability (more than usual); feelings of being persecuted by curators; sadness in exhibitions. Finally, there’s a yearning to go back to the source of the infection: the Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation in Toronto.

It started a couple of years ago, when I had the misfortune of seeing two shows there. Like a fool heading to the heart of an epidemic, I believed myself immune, despite the foreboding titles: ‘Predators & Prey’ (2006–8) and ‘Dead! Dead! Dead!’ (2007–8). Of course, I’d heard about Hendeles: her early career as a Toronto gallerist; her decision to open a private foundation for the public in 1988; her lauded efforts as a curating collector, such as ‘Partners (The Teddy Bear Project)’ (2003–4) shown at Munich’s Haus der Kunst, which included a vast installation of thousands of historical family-album photographs that all contained a teddy bear somewhere in the picture. But I was unprepared for direct exposure to viral curating, and I didn’t know I could die, die, die.

Repetitive mortality appears to be the key indicator of the Ydessa Syndrome – although her latest show ‘Strait-Jacket’ puts a psycho-spin on the condition. It’s like the Stendhal Syndrome (named after the French novelist who overdosed on beauty during a visit to Florence in 1817). But, while the Stendhal Syndrome begins when you arrive at a beautiful place, the Ydessa Syndrome takes hold once you’ve left the Foundation and enter another show. What dies, over and over and over again, is your enjoyment of subsequent exhibitions. Individual art works don’t lose their power, but the way they are put together seems so thoughtless.

Hendeles makes art works exponential in meaning, yet singular in presence. How? To start with, in her exhibitions, contemporary art often appears alongside pop-cultural and design artefacts – a pair of golden Gucci shoes from 2005 or a 19th-century vampire-killing kit – creating a resonance between present and past, art and everyday life, seduction and hunting. Moreover, Hendeles doesn’t so much install works as place them in intensive curatorial care. Walls are reconstructed, say, to recall a Venetian alley where the Gucci shoes were first spotted. Cabinets, pedestals and frames are custom-made. Vitrines might incorporate a magnifying glass while recalling store windows, aquariums or fireplaces. Hendeles avoids uniform lighting – which makes disparate works appear as if they belong together – for the precision of pinpoint fibre-optics, often to cast multiple shadows. ‘Predators & Prey’ featured replicas of Gustav Stickley lanterns (c. 1905), with handmade carbon filament bulbs and hand-blown uranium glass cylinders, which were slightly radioactive.

Instead of being subjected to – or branded by – an abstract curatorial concept, every art work becomes an emphatic witness: maintaining its autonomy while becoming part of an exceptional event that warrants testimony. I still dream about ‘Dead! Dead! Dead!’, which began with George Cruikshank’s illustrations for Punch and Judy (1828), and wound up with Thomas Schütte’s pair of small figurines (Two Escapists, 1992–3). Twelve historical Punch and Judy puppet sets were displayed as the ragged ‘survivors’ of a family that seemed to have as its matriarch Louise Bourgeois’ queen-like head (Untitled, 2003) sculpted from the kind of black flower-embroidered fabric often used for chair covers. A menagerie of five macabre jewellery charms by Marcel Dzama (The Bat, The Crocodile, The Dangling Bear, The Hanging Bear, The Octopus, all 2005) hung across a collection of British 19th-century wooden police truncheons, which despite their royal insignias and multiple dents looked more like dildos. Decorative or dangerous status symbols?

Despite being warned off by yet another ominous title, I couldn’t resist seeing Hendeles’ latest show: ‘Strait-Jacket’ takes its name from the eponymous 1964 film starring Joan Crawford, and builds on ‘Dead! Dead! Dead!’, which included the personal charm bracelets Crawford wore in the movie. Adding different works – like Pipilotti Rist’s iconic projection Ever is over All (1997) and the candle-lit, spooky-thin sculptures in Christian Boltanski’s Les Bougies (The Candles, 1987) – Hendeles turned from death to impact: soft and silent (shadows) or hard and loud (truncheons). She also skipped the carpeting in the Rist installation to augment the crash of the car windows being smashed by the happy woman vandal: I had never before noticed that the passing police officer who waves at her is also bearing a truncheon, albeit without the coat of arms.

Whether I end up in a straitjacket or not, I’m certainly in for a few years of dispiriting exhibitions. If you were disappointed by Venice – or any other biennial of late – go to Toronto as if it were Venice or Kassel, because Hendeles only puts on a new show every couple of years. Or arrange a trip next autumn to the Kunstverein in Marburg, Germany, where she plans to curate her next exhibition. The city also happens to be where Hendeles’ parents settled after being liberated from Auschwitz and where Hendeles herself was born before the family emigrated to Canada. Inspired by a copper cock that sits atop the chiming clock of the Marburg city hall, the curating collector will be exploring the childhood tale ‘The House that Jack Built’. Sounds tempting, no? Just don’t blame me if you end up catching the Ydessa Syndrome.

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.