Art and life are intertwined in paradoxical ways. A picture has to find aesthetic stasis for completion, in other words it becomes still when balanced. It is the equivalent of death. The fascinating aspect is that art continues to reflect life. Ydessa Hendeles dances with a multitude of mute manikins in this enormous solo show, giving breath to an entire history and exhaling some of the artist’s past.

She is the Milliner’s Daughter and these are her fairy tales, except for the dark shadow of death that looms over them from the holocaust. Her family endured unspeakable horrors that have become embedded in the corporeal psyche.

The charm of these wooden manikins is they carry their past with them and one imagines a craftsman of yore, working his lathe to create this facsimile of human transport. In truth, these articulated artist models are not particularly valuable for artists, useful only to convey general posture and hold drapery. Hendeles has deployed them as metaphors of human activity.

Each room holds a separate installation. The most populous room is In Her Wooden Sleep. Here a tall female manikin seems to hold court over the many who sit in pews, intent upon the “message”. Hendeles has woven a number of elements into the whole, so reference is made to two Dutch dolls that came alive. “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk”, music created by Claude Debussy for his daughter, plays from an antique piano while amusement parlour mirrors distort the viewer’s self image. The manikins are subdued in movement, observing in concert with one another rather than making individual gestures. A few inhabit unusual zones as in under display cabinets. The sheer scale of this installation envelops the viewer in a comforting world of brown wood.

Moving into other rooms allows for more poignant expression in Crypt. A standing female manikin burns a candle in vigil for a fallen one, who lies in perpetual wait. A sitting figure leans against the wall. They are stand-ins for our emotions so that we can look upon death more easily, evoking rituals of passing and reverence for the dead.

Blue Beard is a work that opposes two tall, standing manikins, a male and a female, constructed in papier mâché. The female holds a version of the male’s head. In the fairy tale Blue Beard gives his new wife everything with the proviso that she does not enter a forbidden room. She does, and finds it a slaughterhouse of previous brides. Facing extinction by Blue Beard, she is rescued by her brothers who slay him and reinstate her as heir to his wealth. A set of seven keys and a painting of an artist with his muse, a manikin model, reinforce Hendeles’ allegory.

There is a somewhat tenuous connection between diverse objects in the exhibition and I felt this most keenly in The Bird that made the Breeze to Blow, which draws on « The Rime of the Ancient Mariner » by Samuel Coleridge. Breathtaking images by Gustav Doré illustrating the poem dominate the space. In one, a sailor leans forward in a lifeboat as it rises to meet a wave. The rhythmic linear concentration evokes the power of nature more effectively than if the sailor were balanced more realistically. That is the power of art, to insinuate nature through a confluence of deceits. The albatross is a creature a sailor destroyed, just as it was a harbinger of hope for landfall. The slayer is made to wear the dead albatross around his neck as punishment.

Hendeles draws a connection between the albatross and a mechanical aero-car. The aero-car is kinetic and changes itself into a plane by thrusting out a propeller and wings, then retracting again. As an individual piece the aero-car is very engaging but I struggled to see it as a metaphorical albatross despite the similar wingspan. The curatorial artistic strategy brings diverse objects into proximity but they are still subordinate to one another.

The mezzanine and North galleries contained more personal installations, such as a giant bicycle bell juxtaposed with a picture of Hendeles as a child riding a bicycle with the Union Jack draped over it. Immigration and assimilation is chimerical, as I can attest.

History beguiles us as we learn about «Jumbo», an elephant who captured the public imagination and died a miserable death after being hit by a train in 1885. A German company, Blomer & Schüler, used Jumbo as part of their logo on a ceramic Bulldog cup. Thus Hendeles connects the mass extermination in Germany with the death of Jumbo as a curatorial strategy.

I wish there was a visual way of displaying the vast historical provenance for each object that Hendeles has researched and collated. This bewitching exhibition is full of enchanting and whimsical structures that narrate the history of all our nascent beginnings through the medium of the artist’s life. One has the urge to linger, hoping to catch a wooden figure in the act of coming to life.

Ydessa Hendeles The Milliner’s Daughter
The Power Plant, Toronto
January 24—September 4, 2017