Ydessa Hendeles

Barbara Edwards Contemporary, Toronto, Canada

We have long thought of pigs as dirty, stupid creatures, prone to excess and capable of evil acts (sows sometimes eat their young). Yet, humanity has a complex history of close codependence with them, and a tendency to admire and celebrate certain species and breeds. In her exhibition ‘Death to Pigs’, Ydessa Hendeles presents a series of photographs, artefacts and a video to form a set of complex and contradictory perceptions about how and why swine serve as a metaphor for negative human qualities and marginalized social groups.

The show opens with Nose (2015), a collection of photographs of antique toys of diverse origins: a sterling-silver, key-wind clockwork bell in the form of standing pig (British, 1912); a walking toy covered in pigskin, with glass eyes and serrated wheels (French, c.1890); and a terracotta sow plucked from a Nativity scene (Italian, 18th century). Shot against a blank ground, these figures have been stripped of the nostalgic charm that might ordinarily be ascribed to such keepsakes. Showing alternate profile views, Hendeles’s detailed works seem to have been created to aid physiognomic analysis and archival processing. Such imagery spurs speculation about notions of use and value, particularly in relation to developing a comparative understanding (or ideology) of difference – between species, races and breeds. Also telling here is the presence of mechanical keys, implying that these trinkets, not unlike human beings, may be programmed or trained: we just need to wind them up and watch. 

ydessa_hendeles_nose_2015_seven_pigment_prints_on_archival_paper_overall_1.2_x_1.4_m._courtesy_the_artist_and_barbara_edwards_contemporary_toronto

Ydessa Hendeles, Nose, 2015, seven pigment prints on archival paper, overall: 1.2 x 1.4 m. Courtesy: the artist and Barbara Edwards Contemporary, Toronto

Ydessa Hendeles, Nose, 2015, seven pigment prints on archival paper, overall: 1.2 x 1.4 m. Courtesy: the artist and Barbara Edwards Contemporary, Toronto; photograph: Robert Keziere

Sometimes, pigs are winners. In Hendeles’s assemblage Prize (2015), hung from steel chains at one end of the gallery, a British naïve school oil painting (c.1860) depicts a farmer with his prized pig. The animal frowns, oblivious to the picturesque surroundings and the honour bestowed upon him. Its expression of displeasure may be intended to convey that these characters are locked in a cycle of animal husbandry which will ultimately culminate in the animal’s death. This untimely demise is reiterated by the artist’s inclusion of an anatomical teaching model of a domestic sow (German, c.1930), set upon a child’s wooden table directly below the picture. Nearby, Mother (2015) includes several photographs – six of the same pig model and one of a ceramic figurine (c.1894) – depicting a scene from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), in which Alice tenderly holds a pig that had once been an unwanted and cruelly mistreated human baby. The photograph of the model includes numbered and diagrammatic data about musculature, organs, bones and other tissues. Here, the animal ceases to be a vessel for sympathy: it now yields bacon and other cuts of pork.

In the assemblage Three Little Pigs (2015), a tiny bronze pig contentedly snoozing on its side is accompanied by a seven-inch LCD screen housed in a steel box, which the viewer must open with a key. Inside, a button triggers sounds of a heartbeat and a cantor reciting a Jewish liturgical song, while a murky death scene plays onscreen: a trio of pigs in a cage struggle to break free as they are lowered into the darkness. Their prison is a gas chamber: they asphyxiate over the course of seconds, which feel like years.   

ydessa_hendeles_death_to_pigs_2016_exhibition_view_barbara_edwards_contemporary_toronto._courtesy_the_artist_and_barbara_edwards_contemporary_toronton_photograph_robert_keziere

Ydessa Hendeles, ‘Death to Pigs’, 2016, exhibition view, Barbara Edwards Contemporary, Toronto. Courtesy: the artist and Barbara Edwards Contemporary, Toronton; photograph: Robert Keziere

Ydessa Hendeles, ‘Death to Pigs’, 2016, exhibition view, Barbara Edwards Contemporary, Toronto. Courtesy: the artist and Barbara Edwards Contemporary, Toronton; photograph: Robert Keziere

As in all of her projects to date, Hendeles is here a teller of tales, but she is never an indoctrinator. She invites us to wander through installations that, by means of their juxtapositions, force us to re-examine the mythologies we develop around animals and cultural artefacts. Her aim is not to elaborate on the original contexts of these objects and images, but to combine them in ways that encourage a certain interpretive agency, a mode of viewership that is prone to unexpected insights.

Dan Adler is an associate professor of art history at York University, Toronto.

Most Read

The removal of the Confederate monuments in Baltimore shows decisiveness after years of inaction – already they stand...
Yayoi Kusama to open her own museum; Confederate monuments removed in Baltimore; David Roberts Art Foundation to leave...
From a tribute to Straub/Huillet to Valerie Massadian’s portrait of teenage motherhood, the turn to real situations and...
Japan’s growing number of art festivals tread a precarious path between state-sponsored leisure-culture and soft-power...
Fifty years after the term was coined, a show in Samos reflects on ‘the unlikely liaison between love and politics’
In the Rocky Mountains resort town, boutique facades hide the remnants of a surprising counterculture 
Pussy Riot members detained; Pope.L launches ‘Flint Water Project’; Ghetto Biennale participating artists announced
Arsenale and Giardini, Venice, Italy
SoundCloud has been invaluable to the new music community for both documentation and discovery – now the audio-...
The extraordinary life of the late, great, gallerist and collector Alexander Iolas
Various venues, New York, USA
At a time of instantaneous information and fetishized immersivity, artists are evoking scent as an alchemical, bodily...
With her current show at Gasworks, London, the Kuwaiti artist shares some influential images
20 years after Hong Kong’s handover to China, a new generation of artists dive into the city-state’s unknown futures...
‘Klassensprachen’ engaged artists, writers and publishers in soul-searching around the interlinking of class, language...
In lieu of institutional support, artists are working together to achieve a remarkable self-sufficiency
From being citizens to lovers, the most important things in life can’t be professionalized. Is it time for some...
From an inflatable anti-capitalist dragon to the shattered shadow of Robert Burns: highlights from this year’s...
The City of London’s annual sculpture park reveals the complex interplay between global corporations, urban space and ‘...
Romare Bearden, Pittsburgh Memory, 1964, mixed media collage and graphite on board, 22 x 30 cm. Courtesy: © Romare Bearden Foundation / DACS, London / VAGA, New York 2017
Successfully layering a broader socio-historical narrative onto a period of radical non-conformity, this is an...
Trump’s trashing of the Paris Climate Accord makes it clear: we can't be satisfied with art about the political, art...
With a strong surrealist strain, and including a welcome number of female artists, highlights from the 48th edition of...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2017

frieze magazine

May 2017

frieze magazine

June – August 2017