Marburg! The Early Bird!

Marburger Kunstverein, Germany

Ydessa Hendeles, Church & State (The Puss in Boots Project), 2008, Detail

Ydessa Hendeles, Church & State (The Puss in Boots Project), 2008, Detail

Like all her curatorial endeavours, Ydessa Hendeles’ latest exhibition was intensely autobiographical and multilayered. The first autobiographical layer was Marburg itself, where Hendeles was born in 1948. The uni­versity town was her parents’ temporary home after they survived Auschwitz (the family eventually moved to Canada, where Hendeles still lives). The exhibition was based on her family’s story, a narrative haunted by the Holocaust. Yet, as she pointed out in the exhibition guide, the show was not about trauma but inheritance. And it was not about inheriting material goods but rather memories and experiences which play a role in the creation of individual identity. Marburg was only the starting point, then, for an exploration that expanded outward, seemingly infinitely.

‘Marburg! The Early Bird!’ felt less like a single, linear narrative about Hendeles’ birthplace and more like a chain of children’s stories, loosely connected to one another over the two floors of the Kunstverein. Hendeles’ ‘curatorial compositions’ – as she calls her shows – usually mix contemporary artworks and historical artefacts in staged assemblages which look immaculate, despite their varied contents. This composition began in the ground floor foyer with a pristine first edition of Randolph Caldecott’s 1878 picture book based on the English nursery rhyme The House That Jack Built. Nearby was a child’s silver table service, made around 1905 by Tiffany & Co. in London and decorated with scenes from Caldecott’s book. There was also a small paper card – Concordia (The Seventh of April 2009) (2008) – which Hendeles made before receiving an award of distinction from Montreal’s Concordia University in 2009. The card – given to the public during the ceremony – features a reproduction of a short news item from the 11 November 1886 edition of The New York Times about a cow with a ‘crumpled horn’, just like the cow in the rhyme. The card is a key to understanding Hendeles’ unique way of storytelling and the attention she gives to context. This piece ends up speaking about cultural inheritance, oral history, displacement and the printed word; these elements, when arranged into a particular order, can create a surreal story. The story continued in the next room with John Massey’s The House That Jack Built (1981–92), a dream-like series of 23 photographs that stages the rhyme once again.

Other assemblages revolved around the French fairy tale Puss in Boots and the saying ‘The early bird catches the worm’, which inspired the exhibition’s title. Each work played a precise role in a dense web of references. The show asked a lot of the viewer; for those unaware of Hendeles’ style, not to mention her life story, it was probably difficult to penetrate. While posing a challenge, the show pointed towards the enormous potential of the practice of exhibition making, which can make history personal, collective and cultural.

Jens Hoffmann is a writer, curator, and Director of Special Exhibitions and Public Programs, Jewish Museum, New York, USA

Issue 1

First published in Issue 1

Summer 2011

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