Ydessa, the Bears, and etc. Agnes Varda - Fr 2004
viewed: Film Forum, New York, 26 Feb 2005 - ticket price $10
The avowed intent of Agnes Varda in her documentary films is to explore photography and its ability to preserve a moment for eternity while remaining open to an array of interpretations that themselves evolve over time. In relation to Ydessa, the Bears, and etc. this statement of intent sounds to me both unimaginative and trite. A tagline that might come from a Fuji film ad accompanied by a banal truism about the nature of perception and understanding. However, Ydessa, the bears, and etc delivers a spacio-temporal study that engages with both private and personal history in a disturbing and clever simply shot film with an extraordinary subject at the centre of its focusing. There is also the question of to what exactly, “….and etc.” that is part of the title, points.
Varda’s film treats of a personal story of an unusual subject. Ydessa is a jewish woman born in 1948 in Germany to parents who were both survivors of Auschwitz. We see a picture of Ydessa as a child tucked up in bed with her teddy bear. Her parents remained living in Germany until Ydessa was 5 at which time they emigrated to Toronto. We are never told anything of the circumstances determining this emigration. Perhaps that is part of the question raised by the ‘and etc.’ What we glean from the film is that its subject Ydessa is a very very rich woman who plays a significant role in the Toronto art and gallery scene.
The story jumps 55 years from the emigration to Canada back to Germany: to an exhibition at the Munich Kunsthaus of an exhibition designed presented and curated by Ydessa, of Ydessa’s collection of photographs of people with Teddy Bears taken in a vast array of situations and settings. The Kunsthaus was built by Hitler as a gallery for pure correct Nazi art and artists. In the main room of this Kunsthaus show, Ydessa’s photos are hung on the walls and exhibited closely together, and mounted from about 6 inches off the floor almost up to ceiling. The impression is of an overwhelming density of photos crowded into too small a space.
The film has its first meeting/interview with Ydessa at her gallery in Toronto. Although we hear the questions Varda puts to Ydessa; it’s as if we see the replies. We see the replies because this interview is shot in close-up and it’s as if Ydessa’s replies to Varda are in fact inscribed into Ydessa’s extraordinary face. It is the face that gives the answers. It is a face that demands fascination. On the close-up inspection given us by Varda’s shot, Ydessa’s face has a twisted contorted aspect - perhaps she has had a stroke or perhaps she has been under the knife of cosmetic surgery. Perhaps not. Pain, compressed pain is burnt into every pore of this face, pain that has now frozen into a look of death.
Subjective/objective? My companion at the film simply couldn’t look at Ydessa. Perhaps this reaction is extreme. The response of one interviewee at Ydessa’s exhibition at the Kunsthaus to Varda’s question of how she found the Teddy Bear photo exhibition, was to say that: ‘… it was like ….death.’ Death haunts this film as a sort of aesthetic supplement to what we see on the screen. We do hear Ydessa’s words as she connects the early photo of her with her Teddy to a later impulsion to collect photographs of the same sort. It seems reasonable enough. Later in the film we learn from her how rare and difficult to find such photos are; and that locating them becomes an obsession pursued relentlessly through contacts in the art world, auction houses and of course on the net - ebay. An activity of a driven nature pursued by a wealthy woman with huge resources of time and money. A driven woman. Could childhood memory alone, a sentimental personal ikonography be sufficient to energise the drive? Or is it valid to ask supplementary questions?
Her parents were inmates in a German concentration camp - Auschwitz. Ydessa lives in Toronto. She lives alone in a huge English style manor house with 18 bedrooms. She lives in this space that is home to her Teddy Bear photographs and her collection of sizeally inverted sculptures that represent as small some things that should be big(like a bathroom suite) and as big, some things that should be small( a Zippo lighter) as if the world had been made subject to a corrective perspective on importance. The thought occurs that perhaps being in a death camp also subjected the victims to inverted shifts in perspective.
Most of the Teddy Bear pictures in Ydessa’s collection predate the second world war and were taken in Germany and the USA. The photographs show people in all sorts of situations: children alone(in bed, in gardens, dressed up, on tricycle), family groups(at the seaside, or more formally at the photographic studio) and associational groups(sports clubs, drinking clubs, armed forces) . And certainly Nazi party members are well represented. But putting the latter consideration aside or in some form of bracketing, something in the nature of the situations and many of the backgrounds of these photographs representing hundreds of different families, set as they are on the plane of the ordinary and everyday, recalls to my mind only one other set of groupings: the photos of concentration camp victims taken before the catastrophe. These groups often represented by prosperous Berlin Jews look out not just from another era, but from a collective state of mind in which they were unaware of their destiny as Jews in Germany. The factor of randomness underlying the survival of these ordinary photographs taken to perpetuate or commemorate individuals and groups underlies their poignancy as does our knowledge that most of the people depicted will be murdered in the concentration and death camps.
The Teddy Bear pictures too have survived through the forces of random selection. And in Ydessa’s curatorship their destiny has been to be collected together individually and then exhibited as a concentration of images. It is not the individual photos that stand out as memorable in this context: it is their concentration that is the salient feature of the show. A concentration that overwhelms, not just the people attending the Kunsthaus who in interview with Varda attest to their confusion in being confronted with this dense presentation, but also the viewers of the film as they scan the walls of the space wallpapered with the imagery. The fate of the Teddy Bear Photographs is also ultimately to be confined in a sort concentration camp, sanctioned by art. There is another room in the exhibition. You enter; the walls are painted white. The room is an empty save for a life size figure kneeling on the floor as if in prayer: it is a model of Adolf Hitler. And I wonder: is Ydessa a curator or a deterritorialised camp commandant?
As the film unwinds - and it is a supple engrossing unwinding - it is clear that Agnes Varda is treating her material with a light touch.(except perhaps the close ups of Ydessa. They press on me, connecting to ideas that link physical outer form with inner states; asking questions of by what outer marks individuals may be linked to their collective histories. Unfashionable stuff.) Ydessa, the bears, and etc. is certainly open to different readings of Ydessa and her world, as long as the historical material that is embedded in the film is regarded as incidental and not part of a structured layering. If the material is suddenly seen as a historical layering, then Ydessa, both her identity and her physical features, her migration from Germany to Canada, her wealth(unexplained), her obsessive pictures of people with Teddy bears, all take place and can be understood in the historical context of the Jewish Hollocaust. And the ‘…and etc.’ of the title points to a supplementary aesthetic of time moulding the structure(the film has the formality of a uundertakers) and figuration of the film as a death mask.
adrin neatrour 3 March 05