Ydessa Hendeles, born 1948, is a Canadian curator, collector and philanthropist. She has worked as an art historian and gallerist. From 1988 to 2012, she was the museum director and curator of the Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation. She became a member of the order of Canada in 1988 and in 2002 she was awarded The Governor General's Awards in Visual and Media Art. Known for her philanthropy, in 2009 Hendeles donated 32 contemporary works International and Canadian contemporary art to the Art Gallery of Ontario.
She continues her career, a career of a singular collector and curator, whose shows struck sparks of new meaning from skillful conjunctions of contemporary artworks, historical artifacts and “found” objects.
Hendeles became well know for her use of museological objects in combination with contemporary art works, such as in Strait-Jacket (2009-2012) when she exhibited antique Punch and Judy puppets alongside video-work by Pipilotti Rist
Hendeles is a pioneering exponent of curating as a creative artistic practice. She is renowned for her large-scale, site-specific curatorial compositions. Her exhibitions are wide-ranging but precise, visually arresting and psychologically complex, but readily engaging to the general public. Pieces from the past are repositioned as keys to unlock the present. Blurring the line between collector, curator and artist, Hendeles has fashioned her own distinctive space in the contemporary art world.
As gallerist and exhibition-maker, she has mounted more than 100 exhibitions, and began to incorporate her own artistic constructs in her curatorial practice in 1993 and pursued her artistic approach to curating in 2002 with The Teddy Bear Project.
“Under Ydessa Hendeles’s direction, it anchored a devoted foray into the best of contemporary Canadian and international art, organized into theme-oriented exhibitions that set an innovative standard of curatorship.”
Hendeles as exhibition maker
Hendeles decided to make exhibitions related to contemporary art, but not limited to it. She had the means to buy large numbers of objects, both officially “artistic” and not, from which she made a fiercely edited presentation for public view, for a year at a time.
“I’m an object-savant, and an exhibition-maker,” she said. “I work with ideas and things, and I’ve always used an artistic practice to curate my shows.” The results were among the most striking and idiosyncratic shows of the past quarter-century.
“She was a one-woman operation, and she was free from the restraints of a public museum,” said Philip Monk, critic and curator of the Art Gallery of York University. “She was able to develop a procedure for doing the perfect show, and she did many perfect shows.”
Hendeles’s projects became more personal as she went along, hinting at deep private resonances even while they engaged with history and the culture at large. Her collecting followed her interests, not those of the market.
The Teddy Bear Project
In The Teddy Bear Project in 2002, where eBay-sourced images of teddy bears were combined with a series of contemporary works to tell a story about the fate of innocence in Germany in the 20th century. It included a vast installation of thousands of historical family-album photographs that all contained a teddy bear somewhere in the picture.
Predators & Prey’
Hendeles makes art works exponential in meaning, yet singular in presence. 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 artwork becomes an emphatic witness: maintaining its autonomy while becoming part of an exceptional event that warrants testimony.
Projects such as the Teddy Bear project and Predators and Prey investigate familiar items and topics to reveal their underlying nature and suggest original perspectives that force viewers to reconsider their own subjectivity. Her artistic decisions are inspired and informed by her interest in human gregariousness and our inclination to bond in pairs and in groups, defining ourselves by alliances determined by design or by fate.
In the case of Ydessa Hendeles’s collection, the marriage of viewpoints results in a rich exploration of the pathologies, contradictions, and anxieties of contemporary Western societies.
Ydessa Syndrome: Dead! Dead! Dead! and Strait-Jacket
“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.”
‘Dead! Dead! Dead!’, 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.
Another 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.
The Bird That Made The Breeze To Blow
Renowned for her pioneering site-specific installations staging contemporary art, found objects and historical artifacts, her debut show in Berlin, The Bird That Made The Breeze To Blow also shows her interpretative exploration of cultural iconography to explore dualities and power relations, and in particular the power dynamics of the group in relation to the individual. This show marks Hendeles’s identity transition from exhibition-making as a curator to exhibition-making as an artist. The show challenges conventional assumptions about the boundaries between artistic production, collecting, curating and exhibiting.
The show is conceived to provide viewers with the integrated experience of an art installation, but it is also presented as a group of autonomous works, each standing on its own outside the context of the exhibition. It is comprised of photographs and text pieces in conjunction with antique clockwork key-wind tin toys and a custom-fabricated, painted-metal automaton that performs in a large mahogany vitrine. This show was named 2011 Exhibition of the Year by the Ontario Association of Art Galleries, which cited it as “the strongest example—among many—of how Ydessa Hendeles has made curating an art form of its own.”
From Her Wooden Sleep…
In “From her wooden sleep…”, central to the installation is a remarkable and unique collection of 150 wooden artist manikins collected by the artist-curator over thirty years. Ranging in date from 1520 to 1930 and in scale from palm-size to life-size, the manikins surround a lone figure that stands exposed in the crossfire of their gaze. The intense focus of the scenario suggests a community gathering—perhaps in a courtroom, or at an auction, anatomy lesson or drawing class. The result is a multi-layered meditation on belonging. This exhibition will be opened at ICA/London.
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1. What do you think about creating and curating an exhibition with objects that doesn’t have artistic backgrounds? In these kinds of exhibitions, which one do you think has the leading role; art or the curatorial practice?
2. What do you think about artist acting as a curator/collector or vice verse? Do you think in 21st century curatorial practice the difference or the boundaries between those adjectives/occupations are clear? Do you think there should be a distinction between them at all?
3. According to you, what is the difference between exhibition-making as a curator and exhibition-making as an artist?
4. Do you think curating can be an art form itself?
Key words: artistic production, collecting, curating and exhibiting