PRINT Summer 2005



The Bear Facts

To the Editor:

James Quandt’s critique of Agnès Varda’s trilogy of films, Cinévardaphoto (2004), of which Ydessa, the Bears and Etc. . . . is one component [Artforum, April 2005], prompts me to contribute my voice to the chorus of others.

In allowing Varda to document my large group show “Partners,” 2003–2004, I trusted in her much-touted “curiosity,” followed her direction, and facilitated her project without interference. I hoped for a respectful approach on her part, and in practical terms I had thought I might gain some professional footage to support my doctoral dissertation on my curatorial practice in “Partners.”

In the end, however, Varda essentially repackages “Partners,” choosing as she does to focus on my piece Partners (The Teddy Bear Project), 2002–2003, together with two artworks by Maurizio Cattelan—Untitled, 1998, in the form of a taxidermied dog, and Him, 2001, a sculpture of a diminutive, childlike Hitler—and Self-portrait with camera, 1945, a photograph by Diane Arbus.

For those unfamiliar with my work, I have been presenting exhibitions for twenty-five years and had been developing my ideas about curating for fifteen years before I made The Teddy Bear Project, which I initially installed in the group show “Same Difference” at the Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation in Toronto in 2002. I then exhibited an enlarged version in “Partners,” called Partners (The Teddy Bear Project), at the invitation of Munich’s Haus der Kunst in 2003. This piece was shown again, in 2004, by the National Gallery of Canada in “Noah’s Ark,” a group show curated by Pierre Théberge.

Since Varda bypassed most of “Partners” in her film, her reductive presentation warps my intentions. Varda’s approach must be put in perspective. I conceived “Partners” as a multifaceted journey through sixteen galleries, though the film shows only four. I wrote twenty-five thousand words of text for the exhibition catalogue, of which five thousand account for the portion of the exhibition shown in the film. Besides Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) and the works by Cattelan and Arbus, the Munich show also featured major installations and individual artworks by Bruce Nauman, Jeff Wall, Hanne Darboven, Paul McCarthy, Luciano Fabro, Giulio Paolini, Walker Evans, On Kawara, Lawrence Weiner, and James Coleman—alongside photojournalism by Malcolm Browne and Eddie Adams, docu- mentary photos of zeppelins, John Swartz’s vintage portrait of the “Wild Bunch” (ca. 1900), a daguerreotype of a cat, a performance by a German Elvis impersonator, and an antique, tin windup toy titled Minnie Mouse Carrying Felix in Cages. Viewing Varda’s film, you would never know of this breadth, which was the context of Partners (The Teddy Bear Project). Nor would you have any sense of the meaningful juxtapositions I attempted to achieve, the resonances and dissonances I hoped would sound, in mounting all these works together in the several narrative passages I created for this particular public gallery.

Varda, by reconfiguring the realm of my exhibition to four works, tailors my professional curatorial practice to suit her speculations about my personal motivations. In so doing, she compromises both “Partners” and Partners (The Teddy Bear Project).

This is not the place to explain “Partners” again. I can only refer readers to my discussion in the catalogue. Suffice it to say, and in express contradiction to Varda, “Partners” is emphatically not a sentimental lament over the victims of the Holocaust. I cite this canard here only because this theme features prominently in her film and she has repeated it subsequently in public forums. Interviewed in the Taipei Times, for example, she said, “I was surprised at the impact of the Holocaust on Ydessa’s childhood memories. Even when her parents walked out of the shadow of that trauma, the daughter still seems to be carrying those memories on her shoulders.”

In fact, Varda expressed no interest in why I made “Partners.” My intention, in part, was to mount an exhibition, specifically in the building Hitler built to promote the art he preferred, that did not exploit the Holocaust but also did not ignore it. My work was a salute of recognition to the bond between the children of both perpetrators and victims, joined by fate as unintended partners in the legacy of history. “Partners” was not yet another refrain of blame. In many of its elements, the exhibition had nothing to do with the Holocaust at all.

Had Varda not been seduced by her own conjectures, succumbing to the documentarian’s vice of distorting fact to make fiction, I would have been happy for her that her film has found such a wide audience since its premiere at the Jeu de Paume in Paris in the spring of 2004. But anyone who has seen the movie will know that my feelings must be mixed. Her insistent filming of my asymmetrical face in raking light accentuates a congenital condition and makes it into an important feature. By shooting me in my gallery from all sides, standing in tandem with a sculpture of a ghost, I am presented as yet another strange object on display. Indeed, Varda refers to me in her film and press releases as an “eccentric.” If you Google the movie reviews that have appeared as the film has made its way around the festival and art-house circuit all over the world, you will find Varda’s work much admired, while I and my work are a source of fun and derision. In an interview in the Israeli daily Haaretz, she repeats a portion of her own narration near the end of her film, in which she says, “She wears the halo of celebrity, thanks to her collections, and yet she is all alone amid her treasures. She deserves our admiration.” Varda, appearing benevolent, nonetheless locates me on the margins of society—Agnès’s attempt at an Arbus moment.

Unlike the international art press, the international film press seems somewhat persuaded by Varda’s version. In one instance, a reviewer commended the filmmaker for giving meaning to my “unintelligent mess.” While Varda cannot be held accountable for what critics say about her film (and in the process, about me and my work), the image of me she chose to present has arguably misrepresented not only my exhibition but also my life.

Varda portrays me as a curiosity in my own cabinet of wonders, a social outcast consumed by the very madness of the teddy-bear craze I myself identified. She effectively sidelines the fact that I am the person who portrayed the human inclination to embrace an emblem in order to unite in sameness—the need to sing in unison to feel safe—as well as the parallel inclination to segregate and scapegoat difference as threatening.

Of course, Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) addresses that very pathology. It features an archive of family-album photographs and celebrity-press prints, the condition for inclusion being that each photo contain a teddy bear, an icon unique to the twentieth century. The work raises the notions of systems—and of exclusiveness. The pictures, ordered in narrative typologies of real and whimsical conventions, were placed in an elaborate museum structure. Spiral staircases to mezzanines allowed each photo to be viewed and invoked a library’s aura of scholarship and trust. My proposition was that we readily accept realities that are organized and appear authoritative. We also project personalities onto faces—even of objects like teddy bears—and assign scenarios to the lives of people in photographs. But this project about projection had nothing to do with nostalgia over the loss of childhood, as Varda posited, shoring up her conjecture by including a childhood photo of herself. My point was that we conform to social conventions and discriminate based solely on appearances. We make up stories. We generalize and stereotype. We fill in the blanks.

So did Varda. Harvesting my work, my words, my body, and my biography, she composed her film with out-of-context quotes, cuts, and cunning cues in soothing voice-overs that back me into a position that is not mine and manipulate viewers to fill in the blanks in lock-step with her own thinking.

I am proud of “Partners” and am grateful to the many people who helped me realize it. Naturally, I am pleased with the consistently positive reviews that appeared in publications in Europe and North America while the exhibition was on display. I wish Ydessa, the Bears and Etc. . . . had turned out differently, but it is Varda’s project, not mine. Although I am the subject of this movie, I can take no pride of ownership and want none by association. The film is all about Agnès Varda and not about me; it is all about her work as an artist and not to be confused with mine.

Ydessa Hendeles, Toronto