Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Time’s Curator: Agnes Varda’s Ydessa, the Bears, and etc. (2004)

                     installation artist Ydessa Hendeles
Agnes Varda, the photographer-turned-filmmaker of the Left Bank, is a visual magician of quiet, understated intensity, but she still gets short shrift next to her peers among the French New Wave directors. It might be because, as the only notable woman director in a period that included Godard, Truffaut, Resnais and Varda’s late husband Jacques Demy, she was comparatively unmoved by the bewitching, tormenting subject that obsessed other directors: the allure of the female sex. Brigitte Bardot in Contempt (1963), Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim (1962), are not only enduring female icons of the screen; they are the philosophical objects of directors for whom the persistent mystery of women opens into a quest for the ontology of the subject always slipping beyond the camera’s gaze. Varda has always been less of a showman and more of a collector, less embroiled in the motion picture as an engine of erotic and philosophical desire and more susceptible to the camera’s romance with the everyday spectacles and wonders turned out by passing time.

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), the early masterpiece in league with the best work of the directors mentioned above, is a real-time investigation of the passage of time in the life of a French singer convinced, after a medical test and a bad omen from her tarot card reader, that she is rapidly dying of cancer. It’s a movie about what turns up when we are really looking – both for Cleo, who moves from narcissism to self-acceptance, and for the viewer, who is treated to the sumptuous details of the film. Varda’s camera can turn out the pockets of any moment in time and find among the loose change and crumpled receipts things of sudden and surprising value. That’s also the premise behind her enchanting 2000 documentary The Gleaners and I, an exploration of contemporary forms of gleaning – from dumpster diving to found art collages – that takes its premise (and its title) from The Gleaners, that ubiquitous painting by Millet. An impish bricolage, suffused with the warm light of nineteenth century rural painting but full of the jagged beats and changing rhythms of urban photography, the film disarms you with its canny curatorial vision. Nothing is lost on Varda but she preserves the fresh sense of accident and spontaneity that reveals her filmmaking itself as a gleaner’s art.

In 2004, Varda made a documentary short that serves as an even pithier and more eccentric thesis on her rogue cinematic method and style. Ydessa, the Bears, and etc. chronicles Varda’s visit to Toronto to see with her own eyes a photography exhibition curated by the installation artist Ydessa Hendeles. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Ydessa spent ten years collecting, researching, inventorying and arranging thousands upon thousands of photographs of her parents’ generation – the war years – taken of people and their teddy bears. Teddy bears, Ydessa’s obsession (she has a multi-million dollar teddy bear collection, and wears a teddy bear necklace), foreground the fetishistic and compulsive nature of the exhibition. The story told by the staggering collection of photographs is Ydessa’s, her “fantasy world in which everyone has a teddy bear,” but also her way of getting even with a history that demolished her parents’ generation. Ydessa’s laborious process of retrieving the photographs creates the effect of rebuilding and recreating the past, but the array of photographs feels both aggressive and ghostly, a monument to loss.

director Agnes Varda

Ydessa is rarely articulate about the complexities of her own project – she seems to comment on herself more than she comments on the exhibition. The first time she appears on film she is riveting to the eye, though the effect is more perverse than pleasant – she sidles toward the camera, the wide hips of her tall thin frame like a pendulum swinging side to side, her shock of fire engine red hair pouring down her back, and she comes too close, so close the camera can only register her midriff. With her painted face and her artillery of rings, Ydessa’s entitlement and her self-absorption are displayed right up front. This is a woman who demands to be looked at and dares you to hold the gaze.

Maurizio Cattelan's Him
In this way, the meeting between the film viewer and Ydessa is not unlike the meeting between the gallery viewer and Him, the work by Maurizio Cattelan showing a childlike Hitler on his knees praying that sits as the sole object in an empty room in the exhibit. The intended effect is to shock the viewer of the exhibition and force her to reappraise what she has seen: these are wartime photographs, and are in a profound way complicit in a genocide millions witnessed in silent complicity. The anonymous subjects whose eyes stare out of the photographs crowded on the walls of the gallery at once evoke nations of standers-by and the slaughtered masses of Jews. Still, there is something troubling, not quite worked out, in Ydessa’s handling of the relationship between the photographs and Him. The unruly photograph collection resists the order of narrative, yet the Hitler figurine, garishly imposing, insists on one: Hitler versus the photographed subjects.

Varda even-handedly makes new sense out of the singular inclusion of the sculpture. If there is any narrative suggested by the exhibition it is instead in the face off between the twin mannequins of Hitler and Ydessa. Varda’s camera picks up what Ydessa’s anger and need and obsession masks – that the exhibition is about the barbarity complicit in the everyday, not only in the symbol of the teddy bear, which becomes a symbol of individual self-deception for the subjects of the photographs, but also in destruction and loss as the basic operation of time as symbolized by the photographs themselves. They are isolated stills from another time, windows into lost worlds that are ultimately opaque, engaging our imaginations but thwarting full understanding. Catellan’s sculpture can’t explain the sense of inhumanity ghosting through the photographs. It’s an inhumanity that inheres in time itself and the accumulation and detritus it leaves behind.

Ydessa’s quixotic project becomes a metaphor for the film director’s: to collect and arrange pictures into a story in an act of vision and revision that gives shape to the shapelessness of time. Ydessa curates, Varda re-curates, and what the filmmaking achieves is not the superimposition of a more complex reading, but a kind of forgiveness and acceptance. Varda’s eager curiosity towards Ydessa’s project suffuses the picture, and even as she films it with an unapologetic eye for the comic and the strange, she pans through the exhibit as through a filmmaker’s playground. She accepts the eccentricities of the show no less than its pathos, not only as a subject for her film but equally as a sort of analog for, even a thesis on, her filmmaking. If time brings an accumulation of images that may or may not add up, that may or may not achieve coherence, the task of the artist becomes to create meaning, as Wallace Stevens put it, “in the act of finding/ what will suffice”; in the act of gleaning, you could say, of collecting and curating as a bottomless process of discovery matched only by the weird treasures shored up by passing time.

– Amanda Shubert is a graduate student in English at the University of Chicago. Previously, she held a curatorial fellowship at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts, working with their collection of prints, drawings and photographs. She is a founding editor of the literary journal Full Stop.

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