Monday, September 05, 2016


by J J Cohen

Last Thursday I gave a gallery talk at the New Museum, wandering a small portion of the sprawling exhibit called "The Keeper" with the twenty interested people who'd signed up (and gathering a few bystanders along the way). I'd arrived in NYC the previous day, and spent a long afternoon traversing the four floors of the show, taking copious notes and speaking to the guards stationed in each room (they inevitably understand how an exhibit works better than anyone) and observing how people move through the space. On the train I'd devoured the massive exhibit catalog, adding marginalia that attempted to make connections among the diverse components of this Wunderkammer. The next morning I wandered "The Keeper" again, mapping possible itineraries for the talk, finding myself in a weirdly ecstatic state -- so much to think about, so much to share -- wondering how I could accomplish anything of consequence and coherence in my allotted hour.

My intention had always been to begin with the rock collection of Roger Caillois, a selection of which has been transported from Paris as part of "The Keeper." I knew in advance that those objects would be radiant and alluring. My recent book on stone is among the reasons I had been invited to give this gallery talk, and I had always wanted to see Caillois' collection as something more than vivid photographic plates that over time I have come to know intimately. The stones did not disappoint.

Roger Caillois believed that human art and the vibrancy (or what he called "writing") of stone are manifestations of the same cosmic impulse, a shared tendency across matter and form to produce extraneous beauty. This surplus of aesthetic production is as evident in insects and sea creatures as rocks. Nature is not a miser, he insisted, and "useless" radiance is omnipresent. Human art is only one example of a common tendency towards decoration and superfluous splendor, a signal of our shared worldedness ... as well as a sign that the cosmos does not revolve around the human. Little we do is unique, everything part of a larger, beautiful order (the root meaning of kosmos).

What especially fascinated Caillois was human-lithic collaboration. He loved stones that had been inscribed by artists, stones that produced a vision of the world that through human hands was intensified and transformed. With its sustained attention to how the luster of matter calls out to artists, collectors, hoarders and creators, Caillois would have enjoyed "The Keeper." And yet when the time arrived to give the talk, I found I had less to say about Caillois and his collection than I had expected. We lingered there, of course, but the story of the stones became embedded within a larger and more human narrative.

I began the talk where I had spent most of my time in "The Keeper": Ydessa Hendeles's meticulously curated archive, the overwhelming and yet claustrophobic Partners (The Teddy Bear Project). Composed of more than 3000 analog photographs of teddy bears, most of them vintage, all of them secured through online auctions, Partners is an act of salvage and memory-making that traces the dual heritage of the ubiquitous stuffed animals. The teddy bear as we know it comes from a competition turned collaboration between American and German manufacturers. Its American genesis myth involves Teddy Roosevelt, who refrained from shooting a bear chained to a tree for his sport (he did allow the elderly bear to be killed with a hunting knife, but people forget that part of the story). Teddy bears became a mania (Hendeles calls them an epidemic) in both countries for a long span, and found themselves frequently featured in photographs -- often the most animated creature in images where they are partnered with a child who looks forlorn, or a family striving for a smile. Hendeles arranges her "found" photographs into 400 typologies but the organizing principles behind these groups are not necessarily all that easy to discern, since their criteria are always implicit.

A teddy bear is possession, domestication, and comfort; but bears are creatures of wildness, violence, terror. They are rather similar to humans that way. The exhibit is structured like an old fashioned ethnological museum, salvaged vitrines taking up the center of the rooms, spiral staircases and catwalks that do not connect to each other inviting examination of the floor to ceiling photographs throughout its two sections. Wandering the archive quickly reveals that the classifications are to be read vertically, as long columns. Sometimes images are brought together because (it seems) they feature families, teddy bears, and American flags; or teddy bears with groups of four soldiers; or teddy bears used in erotic photography; teddy bears with groups of two children; teddy bears with celebrities like Elvis and Lucy; teddy bears with children pretending to be doctors; and so on.

Order is both violence and a shelter from violence. One column of images jarringly features real bears in chains, often when a circus is not using them to perform. Next to these is a column of humans dressed in tawdry teddy bear costumes. These images are exceptions, but get at a recurring theme of domestication, feral remainder, and barely hidden violence. A display case in the first room offers some of the very few images with labels: teddy bears held by Jewish children (the ones on the left died in concentration camps; the ones on the right made it to safety). The second room holds a display case with pictures of teddy bears with black families (no labels, dark skin made to speak for itself: the photos in this display case want you to ask, why have they been separated out?). The case next to these images holds photos of teddy bears with Nazi soldiers and families. These portraits are, like the Jewish ones, some of the very few with labels -- and they are brutal in their brevity ("Nazi family at Christmas"). It does not take long before a viewer is thinking about the teddy bear typologies as racial sortings, and the ethnology of the museum display no longer seems so innocent or cute.

I watched for a long time what happens when visitors come to the display with the Nazi families, especially a striking series of photos of a young man growing up to be a Nazi soldier (he is shown with a teddy bear when he is a toddler). Mostly they fall silent, peer closely, look away, move on. "Partners" is meticulous to the point of feeling suffocating at times. So precise, so intent on surfacing darker currents for anyone who lingers beyond the shallow comfort of the bears themselves: these transitional objects, supposed to be treasured, have a way of making the viewer feel ill at ease. The guard in the room told me that the exhibit arrived as modules that had to be erected in an exact way, requiring the building of a new wall to make the space conform to Hendeles's requirements (the exhibit travels; previously it was in Munich). So much yellow light floods the cases, and people do smile at many of the photos ... but maybe something about the ark of bears changes for those who know that both of Ydessa Hendeles' parents were Auschwitz survivors. Typology of teddy bears becomes something more troubling. And more human. Some of the people in these photographs found themselves locked in lethal typologies at the time the teddy bears featured in them were manufactured.

Loss, war, trauma and refuge haunt the exhibit. We exited Partners to walk quickly by a collection of houses made by Peter Fritz, an Austrian insurance clerk about whom nothing is known. He created scores of small dwellings out of everyday objects, and these were eventually rescued from junk shops. I told everyone to take a quick glance to their right as we walked briskly (so much to see), so that they could see the yearly portraits that Ye Jinglu had taken of himself. These images reveal quiet stories of happiness, illness, travel. We then stood before a table on which had been placed the assemblages of Hannalore Baron. Her box-like works gather found objects and preserve them as ... well, something new, but in ways that exult in the wear and decay evident in their components, time capsules of a sort that celebrate the struggle and endurance of their materials. They make trauma materially evident, even ordinary. Does it matter that Baron's family was attacked on Kristallnacht (beaten, home ransacked), that they fled to NYC and led a precarious life from that point onwards, that nothing on the table of assemblages attempts a disappearance into the pristine?

The room with Baron's work is lined with the sketches of an artist known only as MM. They depict everyday life at Auschwitz: soldiers screaming at prisoners; death by hanging and starvation; an up close view of what it was like to dwell in a place of unremitting violence. The sketches are so precise that some soldiers can be identified from their portraits. MM was likely a Jewish inmate who was forced to assist with the labor of the camp. We know nothing about this artist because the sketches were found in the foundation of one of the buildings, placed in a bottle in the impossible hope that they might endure. The last sketch is unfinished.

With heavy history now on our mind we looked at Caillois' rock collection and admired the radiance of each geological piece. We wondered though if his love of cosmic principles did not forget something essential to us as humans, the ways in which universals do not always leave room for embodied specifics. What do universal impulses obscure?

Can art really be disembodied? Nabokov's butterfly sketches line one wall of the the room in which the rock collections is housed, precise renderings of the insects he caught, killed, taxonomied, preserved. Harry Smith's string art lines the two other walls. Smith believed that all primitive peoples shared a love of making art with such strings, a shared stirring that Europeans had lost. The placard in the room speaks of Caillois's relation to the Surrealists, and especially AndrĂ© Breton. I told everyone that if they continued through the exhibit they would come to a room with a video installation by Ed Atkins (Trick Brain) full of archival footage from Breton's apartment, which had been sealed for thirty years before its contents were auctioned. The apartment was a museum of colonial plunder, "primitive art" of the sort the Surrealists loved and took out of context. How might this impulse vibrate sympathetically with Caillois' own desire to disembody aesthetics, to move beyond merely human histories? Who gets left behind when these are the tales we tell?

"The Keeper" is story-triggering. The exhibit emphasizes how matter generates narrative -- and how impulse, passion and euphoria meet organization, method, and the slow work of craft and sorting. In the rooms that followed we looked at the striking images of Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley, who invented the technology to photograph snow, proved that no two flakes are alike, and wrote of the need to preserve this beauty against melting loss (he eventually donated his 5000 images to the Smithsonian so that they would endure). Nearby are the little bags of debris that Yuji Agematsu collects from the streets of New York, turning each into a record of the day, a reminder that looking down yields another world. His project is personal (he finds and orders urban flotsam) and collective (it is the shared detritus of NYC that he curates). In the center of the room is a desk and chair that vanish beneath mountainous piles of A4 paper, the drawings and codes of Vanda Vieira-Schmidt, who produces these works to keep the world safe from demonic messengers. So many of the artists in "The Keeper" want to guard the world against loss. So many others exult in the processes through which loss unfolds: decay as the unleashing of potential; difficult history as undeniable material trace; wear and tear as the unleashing of story; decay as renewal more than passing away; the individual (human or object) as portal to multitudes.

Stories are messy. Individual narratives turn out to be shared, but unevenly. We glanced at the apple portraits of Korbinian Aigner, a Catholic priest and ardent anti-fascist who even in Dachau (where he was sent for his resistance to Hitler) continued to create and document new breeds of the apple trees that he loved. On the long staircase to the fourth floor we paused at a display case of items salvaged from the National Museum of Beirut, transformed by bombing into new forms: a statue of indeterminate origin become an accidental Nike, a bottle now curved into a snake. Civil war -- a people turned violent against themselves -- was readable on each. Estrangement become intimacy.

Stories are told not only by emissive objects but through the principles of their collection and sorting. Archiving is a practice of generative proximity-making as well as preservation. We paused briefly at some quilts ("get-togethers") made by the Pettiway family in Gee's Bend, an African-American community known for creatively using all materials at hand to fashion exuberant works of everyday art. We ended with the curiosities of Levi Fisher Ames, twice wounded in the Union army, who ameliorated the trauma of war by learning to whittle fantastic creatures and placing them in lively tableaux. The curiosity boxes that he created are often violent but always weirdly inviting. He spent his life touring with circuses, displaying his works of art while engaging his audience in stories about each. The objects don't exactly speak for themselves. As Ames knew well, they want shared conversation.

Archives are imaginings of the future, arks that sail for indefinite destinations. Much is excluded when the door closes, and much gets loaded aboard unexpectedly. "The Keeper" is about memory, trauma, matter's vitality, wars of many kinds. The exhibit celebrates decay and hoarding, impulse and ecstasy, care and craft. Its components are salvage projects, but in the end it is unclear to me that they preserve anything definitively so much as provoke uncertainty about the future and its shaping. "The Keeper" collects objects, but more importantly, the exhibit generates possibility through proximity, new plots through salvaged stories.

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