Making meaning via wooden manikins

“The manikins share the space with the viewer, and this helps them become uncanny.”

An articulated manikin. Ydessa Hendeles sees the ‘From her wooden sleep...’ exhibition as a tribute to her late parents (photo credit: ROBERT KEZIERE)
An articulated manikin. Ydessa Hendeles sees the ‘From her wooden sleep...’ exhibition as a tribute to her late parents
(photo credit: ROBERT KEZIERE)
A large-scale installation by renowned German-born Canadian artist Ydessa Hendeles is now adorning the Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art.
As the only child of Holocaust survivors, Hendeles proudly sees the “From Her Wooden Sleep...” exhibition as a tribute to her late parents. With a tightly choreographed tableau vivant, she presents an exploration through art, artifacts, found objects and audio of difference and diversity.
The exhibition is comprised of 150 handmade, wooden artists’ manikins that range from coin-sized to lifesized, dating from 1520 to 1930, which Hendeles has collected over the past two decades. Created in 2013 and previously mounted at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in 2015, the exhibition has traveled to Tel Aviv in its entirety with a new narrative – among them, the Veil of Veronica and Crypt installations.
The title of the exhibition is taken from the best-selling 1895 children’s book The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg by Florence K. Upton, which recounts the adventures of two wooden peg dolls and features the first black protagonist in English picture books.
Upton created and named the much-loved character Golliwogg despite prevalent racial stereotypes of the time. In the mid-20th century, the character became a controversial symbol of racism, his name being used as – and still associated with – a racist slur. In the Tel Aviv Museum version of this presentation, the Golliwogg figure is the starting point for Hendeles’s exhibition, introducing the effect of shared values and belief systems on cultural and social dynamics.
Upon entering the pavilion, visitors must walk through heavy, black velour curtains to enter the gallery space. Once inside, visitors are presented with a wooden tavern table upon which sit three objects. The filmic lighting is perfectly set to cast a shadow in the form of a divine halo around the table. The objects: two ecclesiastical, wooden panels depicting the Veil of St. Veronica with the face of Jesus clearly carved, immediately evoking Christian iconography.
According to Christian tradition, St. Veronica was a pious woman of Jerusalem in the first century CE, who was so moved when she saw Jesus carrying his cross that she offered him her veil to wipe his sweat. Jesus accepted, wiped his face and handed back the veil, and miraculously an image of his face was impressed upon it. Her veil became known as a holy relic, the Veil of Veronica.
To get a better look at the objects, one must first kneel or bend down to accommodate the height of the table.
Further, the visitor must crouch to more closely inspect the small, detailed painting of the procession of Jesus to Calvary, which is encapsulated by a glass dome.
“The show is metaphorical, and in no way actually talks about Christianity except as a signifier of the Holy Land,” says Hendeles. “I try to work with metaphor and ‘make meaning,’ and thus, the detailed painting of the procession of Jesus to Calvary. The references are intended to transcend the literality of the objects.”
CONTINUING UP the stairs into the main gallery space, one is met with the Untitled [Girl doll reading] blackand- white photograph by American outsider artist Morton Bartlett (1909- 1992). Her gaze reminds one of the character Alice from Alice in Wonderland and foretells that the visitor is about to enter an existing world of odd and special experiences.
“With its invocation of a bedtime story, this particular photograph seemed apt to launch the narrative of From her wooden sleep.... I also chose it because it conjures a cinematic transition from black and white to color, and signals from the outset that this exhibition is a knowing conflation of curating and art-making,” explains Hendeles.
Inside the gallery space, the scene evokes a church mass, academic lecture or courtroom session. One is immediately captivated by the steady gaze of the audience of seated manikins, each one different from the next.
The rows of figures focus their silent attention on a central figure that is seated with its back turned to them.
“The manikins share the space with the viewer, and this helps them become uncanny,” says Hendeles.
Atop and beneath a long refectory table, made of a single slab of oak, is a selection of the artist’s precisely articulated manikins. The smallest miniatures are delicately displayed under glass on an industrial steel cart, while other manikins are carefully and eerily folded up into vitrines; the outer wall, adorned with distorting circus mirrors, reflects their twisted bodies.
Simultaneously, an audio track of “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” from Claude Debussy’s 1908 Children’s Corner suite, plays on a continuous loop.
“Like all the vitrines in this installation, these antique showcases and the objects inside evoke personal memories of my past,” says Hendeles. “My work, however, though inspired by my memories, is not autobiographical. I position the vitrines in a shared present for viewers to summon their own memories.”
The visitor is then prompted to go down the stairs to the third and final exhibition space, the “Crypt.” The silence paired with the cool darkness of the pavilion transports the visitor into a different dimension, as if going down into a mysterious mausoleum- like space. With the dimmed spotlights, it is easy to forget that the manikins are not human actors; this is particularly true for the human-like form in the windowed burial chamber/ tomb, which is the focal point of the space.
The exhibition’s uniquely haunting content does not melt away after exiting the pavilion, as the show lends itself to greater dissection and further contemplation.
“From Her Wooden Sleep…” will be on show at the Tel Aviv Museum’s Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art through October 24. For more information: about-the-exhibition/ydessa-hendeles