From her wooden sleep…: An interview with ICA curator Philip Larratt-Smith
Philip Larratt-Smith is a Canadian curator and writer who’s published books on artists such as Tracey Emin and Louise Bourgeois. His previous exhibitions include Andy Warhol: Mr America, and Yayoi Kusama: Infinite Obsession for the Instituto Tomie Ohtake in São Paulo – one of the most successful exhibitions in the museum’s history. He is passionate about the work of Ydessa Hendeles and has curated her latest exhibition From her wooden sleep…, which is currently showing at the ICA.
How did the exhibition come to be at the ICA?
Philip Larratt-Smith: I proposed it to Gregor Muir, Director of the ICA, in October 2013. I told him I had just seen this piece in Toronto in Ydessa’a studio. He said: “It’s amazing. Ydessa is wonderful, we’d like to do something with her” and we followed up from there. I thought the ICA was a good fit because of its progressive history. They have a tradition of promoting what is most cutting edge and relevant. I thought it was important to position Ydessa as an artist whose curatorial practice is radical and cutting edge.
Was there a particular work that attracted you to Hendeles?
P L-S: I first became aware of Ydessa in 2003 when she made her show Partners at the Haust der Kunst. I visited her in Toronto in 2006 at her exhibition Dead! Dead! Dead! That was how I became hooked on Ydessa’s work, and I tried to see as many subsequent compositions as possible. I’ve always wanted to find a way to work with her because she’s the gold standard. As far as I’m concerned, as curators go, Ydessa’s completely unique.
Hendeles is a curator too. How did you work as a curator with a curator?
P L-S: I would say it was a partnership. I selected and liaised with the venue on Ydessa’s behalf. London seems a natural context for the piece because of some of the components. It’s also the first time Ydessa’s shown in London, as amazing as that is. I am working with her on the forthcoming two-volume publication about the exhibition, which will be released later. I’ve written an essay on her work and I’m also doing a non-traditional montage of her work. Ydessa, as a curator, is known for the rigour and precision of her compositions, so in a sense she needs no curator, yet at the same time she’s making the transition to showing and exhibiting as an artist. I think it’s been an evolving partnership.
What would you like visitors to take away from the exhibition?
P L-S: I think the piece is sufficiently rich in itself so that people should walk in and have an immediate experience with the objects. It’s hard to sum it up in one or two lines but the piece is about tolerance and visible difference. To some extent, Ydessa uses certain motifs like the manikin and the figure of the golliwog to talk about the history of crazes in society; how good ideas sometimes go bad. She’s interested in the changing valences of human history and the way in which people are included and excluded from communities. There’s a congregation of the manikins. There are likenesses and differences between them. They’ve been organised into facial similarity or material commonalities so they form little families but their abstraction keeps them from being totally unique.
One does feel a distinct eeriness to the dolls. Is that something you’ve ever felt or has it lessened over time?
P L-S: What amazes me is that there’s a lightness and darkness to the piece. On the one hand there’s a creepiness, though I wouldn’t really use that word; there’s a sense of otherness that’s very strong. They’re human figures but they’re made of wood. If you spend enough time in there, it can feel like they’re looking at you. That’s part of the genius and the magic of it. There’s this feeling of the inanimate becoming animate.
How do you personally measure the success of an exhibition that you’ve curated?
P L-S: I want to please the artist. I want the artist to feel they’ve achieved a full expression and that the work has been understood and presented in a sympathetic way. Public response is important too. I’m not talking about a blockbuster; it doesn’t need to be the biggest thing since sliced bread. I want people to go away with a true appreciation of the work. That’s what matters to me.
Ydessa Hendeles: From her wooden sleep… is at the ICA until 17th May 2015, for further information visit here.
Read our review of the exhibition here.