London

Ydessa Hendeles, From her wooden sleep . . . (detail), 2015, mixed media, dimensions variable. Photo: Mark Blower.

Ydessa Hendeles, From her wooden sleep . . . (detail), 2015, mixed media, dimensions variable. Photo: Mark Blower.

Ydessa Hendeles

Ydessa Hendeles, From her wooden sleep . . . (detail), 2015, mixed media, dimensions variable. Photo: Mark Blower.

As I entered Ydessa Hendeles’s installation From her wooden sleep . . . , 2015, I instantly became extremely anxious. I was equally entranced. The darkened theater space of the ICA was filled with 150 wooden artist’s mannequins—from miniature, doll-size figures to adult-human scale, dating from 1520 to 1930—collected by Hendeles over the past twenty years. Most were seated on rows of low oak pews designed for children, their backs turned as they looked toward a lone beech and steel figure, with an easel holding a portrait of a man to its right. On either side of this figure were four high-backed American Arts and Crafts oak settles (designed by Gustav Stickley) with more mannequins sitting on them—like the choir surrounding an altarpiece—while various vitrines contained smaller mannequins. This meticulously staged scene conjured the forms and ritualistic drama of public communal spaces: places of worship, schools, theaters. Along the walls hung fairground mirrors that distorted the reflections of both the mannequins and their viewers. Three security guards stood there like sentinels. Finding myself alone in the space, I felt as if I, too, were on display: watched by both these animate and inanimate beings, in this eerie chapel-cum-museum.

“Golliwogg’s Cakewalk,” the sixth movement of Claude Debussy’s 1908 Children’s Corner suite, played on a loop in the gallery, suggesting that these nonsentient beings might just come alive and dance. In extensive exhibition notes, Hendeles writes of the music’s relationship to ragtime: “The Cake-Walk, too, had its origins in African-American slave communities, the name according to some accounts referring to the prize of a cake given to winners of a dancing contest,” for which slaves mimicked their masters’ own dances in an exaggerated form for their masters’ entertainment. In Hendeles’s notes, the references multiply: to the origins of the golliwog in Bertha and Florence K. Upton’s 1895 children’s book, The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a “Golliwogg”; to the history of fairground distortion mirrors; to the American Arts and Crafts movement. Hendeles weaves a narrative from William Morris to Adolf Hitler, via the concept of das Volk (the people) and the creation of Volkswagen, “the people’s car.” The neutral tones of her explanations strangely belie the horrific circumstances thus evoked, yet the anxiety embodied in this theater of objects was deeply affecting.

I have until now avoided using the word uncanny, with all its baggage from the histories of art and psychoanalysis. However, From her wooden sleep . . . is uncanny. It conjures “a physical sensation,” as Mike Kelley once put it, “that, in my case, I have always associated with an ‘art’ experience—generally an interaction with an object . . . this sensation is tied to the act of remembering . . . provoked by a confrontation between ‘me’ and an ‘it’ that was highly charged, so much so that ‘me’ and ‘it’ become confused.” Both Kelley and Hendeles speak of objects as “stand-ins” or doubles in the Freudian sense—Kelley referencing the use of prop figures in horror movies and Hendeles describing them as “surrogates”—as both actor and audience, playing out the stories one wishes to retell addressing a kind of collective uncanny. In her creation of this oneiric theater of references, Hendeles seems to be urging us to reconsider those episodes of extreme trauma—from American slavery to the Holocaust—when humans were reduced to their bodies, treated (like these mannequins) as material to be used or discarded.

––Kathy Noble