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Ydessa Hendeles's installation The Steeple and The People is part of the Tell Me About Yesterday Tomorrow exhibition at the Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism.

Ydessa Hendeles

The Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism, which occupies the site of the Nazi Party’s former headquarters, stands as a constant reminder of how the German city served as a fascist stronghold that lent power and legitimacy to a cult of terror.

Its current exhibition, Tell Me About Yesterday Tomorrow, on view to Aug. 30, invites 40 international artists, including Canadians Ydessa Hendeles, Brenda Draney, Brian Jungen, Ken Lum, Kent Monkman and Jon Rafman, to look to the history of National Socialism as a starting point to consider how right-wing populist opinion has once again infiltrated and become normalized in public discourse.

In Hendeles’s newly created installation The Steeple and The People, housed off-site at St. Boniface’s Abbey, the German-born Canadian artist, collector, curator and founder of the former Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation in Toronto – a seminal exhibition space for contemporary art in Canada – looks at how belief systems can both unite and divide people, and addresses “human nature and our shared inclination to conform.”

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Using historical and personal artworks and artifacts – including a 1930 photograph of her father, Jacob, a Holocaust survivor, and a 1935 model train of “Der Adler,” which allowed Jewish people from Furth to work in Nuremberg, where they were not allowed to live – she stages a “contemporary art fable,” imagining an alternative history that ends with peaceful co-existence instead of persecution and genocide.

“The work ‘rewinds’ a dark story both to address it and to erase it by proposing a path for the future,” Hendeles says. By boldly rewriting history to eliminate its uncomfortable truths, the artist provides an effective rebuke to the populist’s appeal to return to a homogenous past that exists exclusively in the imaginary. She asserts that by engaging in the work of remembrance to formulate a progressive view of the future, it’s possible to derail a train and change the course of history for the better.

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