“The Keeper,” an exhibition that showcases collecting and preservation in various forms, opened this week at the New Museum. The show ranges from quirky hobbies (Harry Smith’s string sculptures, Vladimir Nabokov’s butterfly drawings) to compulsive habits (Hilma af Klint’s abstract paintings, which she hid until her death because she didn’t want them released while she was alive) to objects that could have easily been lost to history (artifacts from the collection of the National Museum of Beirut that were damaged during the Lebanese Civil War). In general, these are not works one would expect to find in a mainstream contemporary art museum.
At the center of the show is a huge installation of Ydessa Hendeles’s Partners (The Teddy Bear Project), a collection of more than 3,000 found family-album photographs of people posing with teddy bears. The images blanket the walls of the museum.
“It is a sort of museum within the museum,” Massimiliano Gioni, the New Museum’s artistic director and the exhibition’s co-curator, said of the work, which is being exhibited in the United States for the first time. Hendeles started compiling the project “during this craze at the end of the 20th century,” Gioni said. “The diffusion of teddy bears.” (Remember Beanie Babies?)
Gioni described the figure of the teddy bear as “a metaphor for the role of images themselves” and “this doll onto which humans have projected feelings and desires.” He explained that Hendeles’s parents are Holocaust survivors, and added, “This doll is created as a healing talisman to confront various traumatic events in the 20th century.” He said this was a kind of sub-theme to the show—how certain images become a way to come to terms with history. “The love of the image is the opposite of the iconoclastic gesture,” he said. (Hendeles, in an exhibition catalogue for Partners published by Walther König Verlag in 2003, wrote of the bears: “A teddy bear sits in a place between life and death as a trope, in a way that a toy truck and a doll do not. The latter are both literal representations. But a teddy bear bypasses this limitation and seems to be alive by virtue of the ease with which it accepts projections. It transcends the literalness of the object.”)
The show’s inspiration, Gioni said, was Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk, who opened a museum in his hometown of Istanbul in 2012 called the Museum of Innocence (after his novel of the same name), which features everyday objects rather than grand historical narratives as represented by artistic canons. (National museums, Pamuk wrote in an essay called “A Modest Manifesto for Museums,” “present the story of the nation—history, in a word—as being far more important than the stories of individuals.” Pamuk will speak with Gioni at the New Museum on September 29.)
“This idea of an individual museum,” Gioni said, “a museum that is less grandiose in its premises, but somehow closer to personal narratives, was a very inspiring idea. I thought it was interesting to look at individuals who have devoted their energy to bringing together meaningful or significant images. I’ve been more and more curious about how all of us sort of leave a trail of images behind in all of our lives. And I’ve become interested in how we can look at these images beyond the distinction of high art or low art or forgotten talent or outsider practice. It’s less about the definition of who an artist is. The exhibition is interested in creating a sanctuary.”
Post has been updated to properly reflect where Hendeles’s comments on Partners were published.