In her solo show currently on at The Power Plant, Ydessa Hendeles performs the simultaneous roles of collector, curator and artist. ‘The Milliner’s Daughter’ is a complex exhibition showcasing Hendeles’ interest in fables and stories. Her work investigates how narratives, from cultural narratives to fairy tales, inform our individual and collective identities and structure our perceptions of the world.
The exhibition is comprised of a collection of installations that highlight the artist’s background in collecting and curating. Hendeles works in assemblage. Drawing from her collection, she accumulates objects and anecdotes, arranging them in particular systems of display to create meaning. A major work in the show, ‘From her Wooden Sleep’ (2013), utilises display to create a narrative space where appearances and roles are distorted. A vast collection of pseudo-human wooden mannequins, each subtly unique in size and expression, is arranged within its own gallery. These figures seem to form a distinct community, and confronted by them the visitor is suddenly cast in the position of ‘outsider.’ Despite their human likeness, shared characteristics of the mannequins separate them as a group, and their collective stare isolates the visitor, transforming him or her from the observer to the observed, the guest to the interloper. This space of distorted roles and perceptions is enhanced by a series of funhouse mirrors that line the perimeter of the space, contorting the reflections of visitors and making direct reference to the untrustworthy nature of representation.
Hendeles carries these themes throughout the exhibition, and with each work the viewer is presented with a new example of transformed roles, distorted meanings, and the ways in which identity is both discarded and assimilated through narrative. In ‘The Dead Jumbo’ (2011), for instance, Hendeles presents the tragic story of the performing giant African elephant that acquired international celebrity status in 19th century Western popular culture. The work is presented as three large panels of selected text from a 1985 Harper’s Weekly issue. Hendeles not only draws our attention to the story of Jumbo the elephant, but also to the story of the term ‘jumbo’ itself, which has, over time, been detached from its origin and reinvented to describe anything vaguely large or spectacular. Another piece entitled ‘Canadian Child’ (2009), is an oversized functional bicycle bell embossed with an image of a rooster, paired with a small family photograph of the artist as a young girl. The imposing presence of the bell and subtle details in the photograph make personal comment on how identity is unfixed; it can be manipulated or assimilated, whether by choice or by force of circumstance, as the narrative of history unfolds.
Ultimately, Hendeles works in the art of telling stories, drawing material from both fiction and fact, and this exhibition, much like a good book, leaves the visitor with lingering thoughts on identity, meaning, and the possibility of their reinvention. Indeed, ‘The Milliner’s Daughter’ guides the visitor through a series of chapters, wherein Hendeles uses a unique visual language to convey the power of fable in forming identities, common belief systems and perceptions of difference that can draw us together or drive us apart.