Friday 24 April 2015

The Trouble With Nostalgia: An Account of Two Collections

Alicia Rodriguez scouts two very different manikin-themed museum displays.

Box Back Terrace (unknown artist) England, 1990s

‘Something you can play with/ something you can cuddle/ but nothing that’ll hurt you/ or get you into trouble’ assures the piece of card to which a tiny peg wooden doll is fastened. Placed amongst some hundred antique manikins of varying descriptions as part of Ydessa Hendeles’ From her wooden sleep, these dolls do not recall memories of ‘play’ however, with their slim, hard bodies and fragile wooden points in place of hands and feet. They appear to whisper conspiratorially, uncanny and cruel. 

Completely unintentionally, I see From her wooden sleep fresh from a trip to the current exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, Small Stories: at home in a dolls’ house. It is a kind of nightmarish descent.

Killer Cabinet Dolls' House (unknown artist) England, 1835-38

I suspect that my visit to Small Stories is a way of indulging a regressive childhood nostalgia fantasy and an attraction to all things wee. I just love the bits that go in the tiny houses, miniature bread rolls and all that. I encounter a family friendly show, accessible and educational, offering the angle that dolls’ houses are integral tools for learning about the history of the home itself, at least in the Western world. Which is, of course, correct, but made for an ever so slightly baffling exhibit where two interactive ‘room’ sets appeared to be depicting life-sized scaled-up versions of miniature dolls’ rooms. The hoards of school children visiting the show appeared to forgive this formal crisis of scale, however.

Featuring a selection of twelve dolls’ houses from over the past 300 years, it is not surprising that many pieces in the show are not so much toys as obscene display cabinets of wealth. The ‘look but don’t touch’ sensibility that caters to a very adult interest in toys is evident in the intricately rendered miniature replicas of country mansions and Georgian townhouses. It is a simplistic view, but peering into the carefully arranged room sets I imagine the hushed cult of dolls’ house hobbyists is a chance for grown-ups enjoying a second childhood to preserve and care for the precious things that they so recklessly abused (played with) in their own youth.

Kaleidoscope House, Laurie Simmons, Peter Wheelwright & Bozart, 2001

Alternatively ‘Jenny’s Home’, a prefab inspired 1960s high-rise is exquisite in its playability. I identify with the poseable, plastic inhabitants and simple, colourful room sets despite the era being more suited to that of my parents’ childhood. Moreover, Laurie Simmons’ ‘Kaleidoscope House’ from the early 2000s, the most recent in the show, is another toy-for-adults, a piece of high contemporary design masquerading as plaything.

Photo: Robert Keziere 

Due to its use of objects dating back to 1520, and methods of display traditionally associated with museum galleries, it is tempting to view From her wooden sleep as another collection of historical artefacts, or a cabinet of curiosities. It is so highly aestheticised however, and arranged so suggestively, that Ydessa Hendeles manages to narrowly avoid this. At the very least, she attempts to blur the line between history and contemporary art; ‘this exhibition’, she suggests ‘is a knowing conflation of curation and art making.’

A collection of over a hundred wooden manikins, in addition to a ‘unique collection of five mountain banjos’, fairground mirrors and one culturally insensitive picture book (dated 1895) populate the ICA’s low lit theatre. They are sitting expectantly upon pew-like benches, languishing beneath worktables, on top of industrial stands, and posturing behind glass. Certain clues allude to a pursuit of particular eras; Claude Debussy’s ‘Golliwogg’s Cakewalk’ plays on a loop recalling a grotesque and harmful nostalgia, while a selection of distorted mirrors pull the viewer further away from rationality. The choice to use, for example, bell jars and polished wood cabinets as display tools – as opposed to the potentially anachronistic glass cases often found in contemporary art spaces – further the idea that From her wooden sleep is to be read as an installation rather than a museum display. The effect is theatrical and highly immersive.

Photo: Robert Keziere

With numerous references to slave culture, the Holocaust and the Arts and Crafts movement, Ydessa Hendeles treads dangerous territory in terms of how the work may be interpreted. The controversial presentation of the aforementioned ‘The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg’ by Florence K Upton, a first edition children’s book placed open in a vitrine, is jarring and awkward. Art should be challenging, but I feel that the use of such potent, loaded symbolism carries with it certain responsibilities that are never quite resolved. The ambiguity of the museum/contemporary art environment here suggests that this document may not be as rooted in the past as my politically correct ideals would like.

I wonder if I am projecting my own discomfort onto the work. A 78-page booklet accompanies the show, detailing each piece so that visitors can understand more about the items displayed. Clearly a very personal collection, From her wooden sleep is an impressive and foreboding example of how an artist relates to their experiences through objects.

Photo: Mark Blower

Aside from the exhibiting of antique doll collections, Small Stories and Ydessa Hendeles’ From her wooden sleep do not particularly draw parallels, and I admit that I consider them together here primarily due to the short space of time in which I visited both shows. However, comparing the two has given me a lot to think about in terms of display, history and curation. While the V&A Museum of Childhood takes a simple concept as a point of departure and uses this as a fairly accessible tool for learning, as is customary for a museum environment, Hendeles’ installation appears to utilise museum-like aesthetics to suggest narratives not yet revealed.

I am in two minds as to how I read her show. The conflict is intriguing: as antiquarian collection, complete with catalogue and stern security guards or as a troubling and problematic contemporary installation.

Alicia Rodriguez

From her wooden sleep Ydessa Hendeles at ICA (London, SW1), 15 March - 17 May 2015.
Small Stories: at home in a dolls’ house at V&A Museum of Childhood (London, E2) 13 December 2014 - 6 September 2015.

Photo: Robert Keziere

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