Ydessa Hendeles, “Partners (The Teddy Bear Project)” (2002) (all photos by Robert Keziere) (click to enlarge)

I walked into a dimly lit room and saw that a wall divided it into two spaces. In each space there were heavily riveted spiral staircases leading to a metal mezzanine running around the perimeter. The spiral staircases and rows of rivets made me feel as if I had descended into Captain Nemo’s submarine in Jules Verne’s classic science fiction novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870). I was being taken somewhere, but where?

Everywhere I looked, I saw different-sized black frames mounted on the walls, from floor to ceiling, neatly filled spaces crowded to bursting. There were large wooden vitrines in which various objects, including teddy bears, had been carefully arranged. The effect was daunting and inviting. Whatever I was going to look at, I knew that I would never see it all and that was part of the experience – the realization that there was far more than I could see, much less comprehend. And yet, what could have become pretentious, tedious or dreary wasn’t that at all, because in every frame is a snapshot of one or more individuals paired with a teddy bear, that soft fuzzy toy we believe to be essential to childhood, its moment of innocence, power, and hope. We see black-and-white photographs of the teddy bear as best friend, surrogate child, mascot, protector, spirit animal, and homebody.

Inside these rooms from which sunlight has been banished, the viewer is invited to look at photographs from seemingly hundreds of family albums, to examine artifacts of forgotten lives, to become lost in thought and wistful for an unrecoverable past, only to surface and encounter another pairing and be sent off again down some other path of remembering.

The teddy bear is the ideal other, a furry vessel waiting to be invested with meaning, including its origin and early life. It is clear that the individual (or individuals) in each photograph has a special bond with his or her particular teddy bear (sometimes more than one). It is the bear’s owner that brings it to life, makes it something more than an inert, manufactured product.

The place I have wandered into is Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) (2002), which was conceived by Ydessa Hendeles. According to Hendeles, the project:

[…] includes an archive of found family-album photographs determined by a single motif: a toy teddy bear. Every photograph includes the image of a bear. The pictures are arranged in over one hundred typologies that are presented in a series of interlocking narratives so that they can be read by approaches from either end of each wall.

Ydessa Hendeles, “Partners (The Teddy Bear Project)” (2002) (detail: Dulcie Peel’s bear, 1906) (click to enlarge)

Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) is the centerpiece – one might say the heart of — The Keeper, organized by Massimiliano Gioni, with Margot Norton, and Natalie Bell and Helga Christoffersen for the New Museum (July 20 – September 25, 2016). It gets my vote as one of the best exhibitions of the year and, for a variety of reasons, should not be missed. More than any of the other selections included in the exhibition, Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) was afforded a highly designed space to house the presentation, suggesting that it is inseparable from the show as a whole.

I was lost right from the start, unable to decide whether I was going to flit about, like a butterfly, or proceed with the deliberateness of a snail. The inability to take it all in or to know how to proceed through this dense maze is one of the essential points of this imaginary museum. One of the things that makes the collection unique is that it is devoted to what the anthropologist James Clifford – in his outline of the art-culture system – called “inauthentic artifacts.”

Teddy bears are soft, neutered, and accommodating; they are waiting to be recontextualized by their owners. There is an ongoing debate as to the teddy bear’s origins. It was named after President Theodore Roosevelt, after he refused to shoot a bear that his guides had subdued and tied to a tree during a Mississippi hunting trip in November 1902. Around the same time, a Brooklyn shopkeeper named Morris Michtom and his wife Rose began manufacturing “Teddy’s bear,” and a German seamstress, Margarete Steiff, started a line of soft toy bears through her company, which she founded in 1880. The rest, as they say, is history. The passion for teddy bears is an early twentieth-century craze that Ydessa Hendeles, who is from Canada, catches beautifully and thoroughly in this exhibition, at once a joyful celebration, a historical gathering, and a wistful lamentation.

What happened to these people? Did their lives end in misery? Did the young men go off to war? What about the young women? Even when they have names and, in one grouping, playbills showing they were once known and celebrated, I could not help but think that they all ended badly. Then there are the surprises, such as the photographs of Elvis Presley and a teddy bear promoting his song, “(Let Me be Your) Teddy Bear” (1957), which opens:

Oh baby let me be, your lovin’ teddy bear
Put a chain around my neck, and lead me anywhere
Oh let me be (oh let him be)
Your teddy bear

The teddy bear is your one true friend, the one being that never betrays you.

Hendeles is astonishingly thorough. Everywhere I looked I saw a photograph of a teddy bear or the real thing, sitting in the gloom, complete with an instructive label. In the moments when I felt overcome by inchoate sadness or saw something funny and sweet, it all made a kind of disturbing sense. I was looking at a lost world. I was looking at the faces of people who seemed – for the moment – happy, and who are now most likely dead. I was looking at my future and realizing it was everyone’s, and there was nothing I could do about the universe’s colossal indifference. I could hug a teddy bear for comfort but I couldn’t save it, or me.

The Keeper continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through September 25.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...