New York

Ydessa Hendeles, Partners (The Teddy Bear Project), 2002, mixed media, dimensions variable. From “The Keeper.” Photo: Maris Hutchinson.

Ydessa Hendeles, Partners (The Teddy Bear Project), 2002, mixed media, dimensions variable. From “The Keeper.” Photo: Maris Hutchinson.

“The Keeper”

Ydessa Hendeles, Partners (The Teddy Bear Project), 2002, mixed media, dimensions variable. From “The Keeper.” Photo: Maris Hutchinson.

A sprawling installation, the exhibition “The Keeper” at the New Museum in New York was really a collection of collections, covering three floors (plus the museum’s lobby gallery) and comprising some four thousand objects—scrapbooks and drawings, toys and quilts, paintings and whittled carvings, snowflakes and butterflies—all arranged into discrete archives collated by some thirty artists, scholars, and tinkerers. These “keepers” included, for example, a famous novelist who preferred to chase butterflies, a French philosopher who coveted polished stones, a folk-music aficionado who saved string games, and a woman who set out to photograph every domestic interior in Poland. In principle, this was an exhibition of case studies, or even portraits, of these quirky individuals, valorizing those who preserve and quietly craft their quixotic art projects, destined to never fit in.

The show is a follow-up to curator Massimiliano Gioni’s enormously persuasive mega-exhibitions at the 2010 Gwangju Biennale and the Fifty-Fifth Venice Biennale in 2013, and once again he argued for a view of culture that is all-inclusive, encyclopedic, iconophilic, canon-busting, and defiantly outside the mainstream. His keepers defy the art-world apartheid of privileged radicalism, the exclusionary system of controlled selectivity and feigned meritocracy that today so convincingly distorts our perceptions of creativity and its uses. This exhibition confirmed Gioni as an unapologetic romantic who favors loners, eccentric makers, and savers who often eschew any designation as artists, and who pursue protracted, sometimes lifelong projects. Exemplary of this type are Wilson Bentley, who devoted his time to photographing the ephemeral crystalline structures of more than five thousand snowflakes, and Levi Fisher Ames, the Midwestern Civil War veteran who barnstormed the country with hand-carved menageries of imaginary animals.

These mainly historical collections displayed two characteristics that might be regarded as crucial to our networked, twenty-first-century moment: a desire (and capacity) to capture and record the often overlooked or disregarded minutiae of daily life, and the tools necessary to collate and organize the overwhelming volume of images and information that results. While Gioni celebrates the gleaners and ragpickers, what determines their relevance to the present are the ways in which they distill meaning from their reorganized detritus, whether through the conceptual process of taxonomic classification, serial repetition, progressive sequencing, or sheer accumulation. These keepers use the emotional appeal of prosaic objects not nostalgically but strategically, as a poignant bulwark against trauma and loss and all that is ephemeral. Against the violence and potential of imminent extinction, these collections provide solace, order, meaning, and comfort.

Nowhere was this predilection for creating meaning from chaos more apparent than in the exhibition’s tour-de-force centerpiece, Canadian artist Ydessa Hendeles’s Partners (The Teddy Bear Project), 2002, easily one of the most significant creative expressions of the past two decades. If computers have granted immateriality to images, they have also provided a network for photographs to recirculate as artifacts. Hendeles, using eBay and other online sources, was able to amass an archive of more than three thousand vernacular photographs, each featuring an image of a teddy bear, the ultimate comforter. These once-beloved, now-discarded photographs were neatly mounted and framed, arranged in meticulous subcategories, and then hung in a dizzying, salon-style installation with massive wooden cabinets and a two-story mezzanine level accessible via spiral staircases. Among other things, this overwhelming exhibition-within-an-exhibition made the point that while all museums are predicated on this desperate urge to preserve the past as it disappears around us, what is most endangered is often that which is most common and most personal—particularly in an era dominated by online social networks that recklessly trivialize and commodify our most intimate emotional selves.

In a text that serves as a kind of coda to the exhibition catalogue, novelist Orhan Pamuk, himself the proprietor of an idiosyncratic museum in Istanbul that uses quotidian objects to weave a story of love, longing, and loss, offers his view on such personal collections. “We don’t need more museums that try to construct historical narratives of a society, community, team, nation, state, tribe, company, or species,” Pamuk writes. “We all know that the ordinary, everyday stories of individuals are richer, more humane, and much more joyful.” Foregrounding a passion for images and collecting, “The Keeper” worked to dismantle the presumptions that govern museums and that limit our pleasure in commonplace things.

Brian Wallis