Saturday, May 5, 2012

Partners in Time

by Drew Martin
I recently watched Cinévardaphoto. The Netflix blurb for this film is, "How potent is the power of a picture? Filmmaker Agnès Varda asks this question and attempts to answer it in three separate vignettes. In the first, a female artist, Ydessa, collects photographs of teddy bears. But why? Next, the director examines her snapshots from the 1950s, taking a step back in time. The final short captures Cuba after the revolution, full of possibilities and on the brink of otherness."

Cinévardaphoto is narrated in French and has interviews in various languages. Netflix categorizes the film as "cerebral" and "understated." I found the first section most intriguing. "Ydessa" is Ydessa Hendeles and her collection of teddy bear images displayed in the film is from her show at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, Germany in 2003. There are two-story rooms filled form floor to ceiling with first-half-of-the-twentieth-century photographs of children, adults, families, sports teams and soldiers. Each picture is nicely matted and framed, and has the unifying element of a teddy bear, who appears as a companion of little kids, a playful element in racy pictures of naked women, a humorous prop in staged photographs of men playing cards and even as a hunted animal. There are teddy bears at family gatherings, trips to the beach and even going off to war. Ydessa explains that the exhibit deludes the viewer into thinking that there is an abundance of such photographs when in fact, they are quite rare. She also downplays the obvious teddy bear theme. She says, the teddy bear show is not a theme show.

"It takes the notion of theme, turns it upside down and inside out. It says, you look superficially at an installation shot and you will think it is a theme, you will think it is a traditional show of typologies and taxonomies but once you get close you will see that it is much more complicated than that and much more challenging than that and much more rigorous in terms of what is being presented. It is not a theme show. It is a narrative that explores world memory."

The show was called Partners. From the pictures, you would assume that the partnership is between the little stuffed bears and their human friends but the show has a twist to it. A stark backroom displays Maurizio Cattelan's statue of a of kneeling Hitler looking heavenward for forgiveness. After seeing the sculpture, the photographic memories that the old picures offer and the crammed display seemed steeped in the Holocaust. Ydessa says, "There was a German trauma there was a Jewish trauma. We are partners in this trauma." The show was in Munich, the capital of the Nazi movement, in the Haus der Kunst, an exhibition hall that once celebrated German and Nazi art. There are teddy bears with nazi embellishments, pictures of Nazis with teddy bears and one mat that was debossed with a swastika. Visitors to the exhibit describe a feeling of claustrophobia in another person's obsession and an extreme emotional shift once they notice Cattelan's Hitler. The collection alone at first seemed odd to me but in light of the Holocaust, I understand and I am impressed by Ydessa's project. The display is not just a gallery hung with images. It works as installation art. The labor and costs of neatly framing the hundreds of images must have been astronomical and although there is nothing monumental in the show, it leaves (even from seeing a film about it) an impression of a massive whole work of art, like a Richard Serra or Anish Kapoor oversized sculpture. A key element to the exhibit is that Ydessa is the child of two survivors of Auschwitz and has very few images and heirlooms of her ancestors.

The bottom picture of the triptych here is of the installation but the other two images here are not from Ydessa's show. The top one is of my father's teddy bear, Hermie, taken on Christmas day in 1940, his second Christmas. There is a picture of him on the desk. The other image is one I took of my four-year-old son a few months ago with my old Ricoh camera, with black and white film. It is a nice image of boyhood. He was attacking me with a bat in one hand, while clutching to his teddy bear in his other hand.