Toronto, Apr. 2011: Iris Häussler's work vascillates in the liminal areas between fact and fiction, history and memory, science and art. Her practice requires periods of intense research, piecing together elaborate, painstaking detail in the creation of objects and entire environments -- taking place entirely in secret. When her immersive installations are presented to the public, in many cases the artist, or who you would assume the artist should be, remains hidden.
I first learned about Iris Häussler’s work from David Moos, the curator of contemporary art of the Art Gallery of Ontario—Musée des Beaux Arts Ontario (AGO). In a list of art highlights for the year in Toronto, he mentioned her project He Named Her Amber (at the time an on-going installation at The Grange annex to the AGO) as “one of the most thought-provoking art experiences one may have anywhere, not just in Toronto.” Trying to find more information about the project I encountered a virtual labyrinth of information, as I navigated between different websites associated with assorted cultural auspices, archives, and research modules, from the AGO’s website to the Anthropological Services Ontario. Photographs and documentation of the project revealed it to be an archeological and anthropological enterprise. So who was Iris Häussler? An artist, an archivist, an anthropologist? I traveled to Toronto earlier this year to find out more about her work.
Iris Häussler, He Named Her Amber, 2008-2010, Installation view of the former historic kitchen of The Grange (1840), currently used as staging area for the archeological excavation; Photo: Iakub Henschen 2009
[Scene 1: The artist’s home on a quiet, residential street near downtown Toronto. In her kitchen we sat down for some coffee. On the wall above us stretched an enormous chalkboard, covered with various notes.]
Natalie Hegert: Tell me a little bit about when you first started as an artist.
Iris Häussler: How did it start… to make a long story short: I was my mother's third daughter, my father's fifth, so I did not get a lot of attention and they let me get on with own ideas. I made it into the Munich Academy of Fine Arts, and immediately started obsessively working. To the degree that I would stay there overnight in the old barracks and just keep working. There was no building code and no one controlling, no one who would hold you back. Literally you could rip up the floor, you could chisel into the walls. At night the homeless would break in and eat a can of tomatoes if you had left one there. Thinking back I would consider it an inspiring place with a lot of freedom. I got into a working habit not to travel, not to go clubbing, not to spend time at the beach, not do anything except transforming my studio space over and over again. I worked with a range of methods, mostly self-taught, with wood, with lead, with wax, with sand, soil and with clay. And when I mention these materials then you must not imagine the neatly packaged materials that you'd get in the store, but huge masses. My teacher Heribert Sturm, once when we approached him saying “we need some clay,” he'd just order it from a brick factory the next day and a truck would drive right into the garden of the neoclassicist "Akademie" and dump thirty tons of clay on the lawn. Of course it would be clay that contained frogs and leaves, not cleaned, not homogeneous, but we would work with that. This way you would stand in front of a mountain of material. And your body would engage fully with it. You’d start in with rubber boots, and at some point they'd be stuck in the clay and you'd continue barefoot and up to your knees. It was physically engaging—in a formative way. Very early on I was also interested in portraits. Not painting or sculpting, but investigating into what material evidence really portrays a person. And that led to the idea of renting an apartment and just laying out the traces of a former inhabitant.
NH: In space?
IH: Yes in space, in their living space and having visitors coming and experiencing that.
NH: So that was the first portrayal you did.
IH: Yes. This was 1989, still in the Cold War and I had this image of a person who is terrified of nuclear fallout and who went through a lot in life before. I started to narrow it down to a man who lived alone and built his own shelter in his apartment. It was in a working class, social housing project in Vienna where I finally set that up. The fictitious guy had developed this habit of buying canned food and wrapping it in lead sheets.
Iris Häussler, Ou Topos, vienna, 1989; Courtesy Iris Häussler
NH: To preserve it?
IH: To preserve it and basically build his own last security line. Which is of course in a way ridiculous because lead itself is poisonous. So this guy began hoarding canned food, wrapping the cans in lead sheets, labelling them accurately with the expiration date and shelving them in his bedroom. He had to move his bed out to make space for his crude shelves with more and more and more of these tins. And then he left the situation as if he’d just gone out, and you don’t know if he’ll just come back an hour later with some grocery bags or if he’ll never come back. So you find all the notes he’s written, photographs he cut out from newspapers and books, so there was a lot to dive into. The whole apartment created his portrait.
NH: So this was the first time you had rented an apartment for the purposes of an installation…
IH: Yeah, I was still at the Academy. I started installing in 1988 and the next summer I opened it to the public.
NH: Wow that is a really long time. So you were there working in the apartment, not transporting anything from your studio.
IH: No, the apartment was in Vienna, that's a six-hour train ride from Munich. For this project I was working with the Vienna Volksbildungswerk, which was supposed to do the PR and postering. They had printed thousands of invitations, posters and even a catalogue, but they had no one to go out and distribute any of it. So nobody came. It was frustrating. But then they did something amazing. They phoned one or two nursing-homes and told them there is something that seniors might be interested in. A day later two buses rolled in with seventy people or so who climbed the four floors up to the apartment and stood there in my installation.
NH: They must have had so many ways of connecting to that work.
IH: You name it. What happened was, they didn’t take it as an artwork—it didn’t interest them a bit if this was an artwork. They saw what had happened in this apartment and they just poured out with their own stories. I just stood there; sometimes they addressed me, but mostly they were just talking with each other for the whole afternoon. Of course they took my character's possessions into their hands, they rummaged through his stuff, they used the washroom. It was a really inspiring moment. One of the best audiences I ever had. In hindsight, I can say this was the start for me to go deeper into this direction of immersive installations.
NH: So in that case you were there, you were with them in the apartment. But in later works visitors would be able to pick up a key at a gallery and go by themselves. Did you find it as rich of an experience if you weren’t actually present for the viewing?
IH: You mean would it have been more interesting if I had been there?
NH: How would you find out about the viewer’s reaction?
IH: I don't really need to. And people who are especially moved find some way to contact me. Whenever there's a guard integrated in the artwork, that becomes an element of the work in itself. Sometimes I want that, sometimes not. I think trust is a keyword in my work. Let the visitor notice: there are no observation cameras, there is no guard, could I abuse this situation? Won’t I?
NH: Was that ever the case?
IH: Yes, occasionally that was case.
IH: I had this exhibition Xenotope, where you could stay overnight, and I also showed very fragile slabs of wax with encased curtains, salvaged from abandoned houses. And there was one visitor who booked the gallery for one overnight stay and took a key and injured all the exhibited works, scratched the wax surface with the key. In another overnight situation in the downtown core, one visitor did not close the curtains of the gallery window and was masturbating in front of the windo. There are always some individuals who feel they have to use such an opportunity as a stage to gain public attention. In a way this is ok. That’s a risk I am taking. It’s a very grey area, but confronting people with their own integrity is a part of the work.
NH: But you grant them that complete freedom. That’s very different from most art installations.
IH: In Canada I changed my practice a little bit to adapt to a new situation: insurance and liability is much more of a topic in North America.
NH: When did you move to Toronto?
IH: In 2001, just two weeks before 9/11.
NH: What was the first thing you did when you arrived?
IH: You mean the first installation? When I came here I still had some exhibitions in Germany going on. But coming here felt in a way like a nice cut, and made me rethink my work and I even considered stopping. I treated these first years as my psychological experiment to see if I could vanish completely as an artist… Obviously that didn’t work…
View of the livingroom; Photo: Iakub Henschen, 2006 / Courtesy Iris Häussler
[Scene 2. We walk around the house to get into the basement, which serves as a storage space for works from The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach, an installation that took place in an old house on 105 Robinson Street in Toronto. In this particular project, a house was discovered, filled with the sculptures of a reclusive older man, a German immigrant named Joseph Wagenbach. The Municipal Archives were brought in to conduct a “legacy assessment” to determine the cultural value of the works.]
IH: We have to go around the house to get to his apartment; it’s a short walk.
[The way is icy. We pass through the backyard where a wooden chair holding a pile of birdseed hangs suspended from a wire in the middle of the garden. A few steps down, Iris knocks on the door of the basement.]
[She unlocks the door, but has trouble opening it. Something is sticking the door shut.]
IH: Unfortunately something is wrong you have to come in like that.
[Inside it is cramped. A musty, putrid smell. There is a bed by the door, with rumpled sheets. It looks like it’s been slept in. The tiny kitchen area appears to have been the site of an accident involving mud or clay. Around the room there are various small figures, rabbit sculptures, clay-covered stuffed bears, and Brancusi-like columns of stacked flower pots.]
NH: This is incredible.
IH: Feel free to explore. Unfortunately some of the pieces are out of the apartment, on loan at an exhibition in London, Ontario. This is where the large Brancusi pillar would have been installed. Normally it’s much denser.
NH: So this was…so he moved down here from 105 Robinson?
[I wasn’t sure whether to address him as a real person or not…]
IH: Well first he was in a hospital for quite a while and then he was in a nursing home, but they wouldn’t keep him.
The dresser in the sealed chamber; Photo: Iakub Henschen, 2006 / Courtesy Iris Häussler
[She motions me into a narrow closet, with a large chest of drawers with clothing, a few photographs, and other items inside. On top of the chest of drawers stood a few more sculptures, female figures. On the closet door hung about six old-fashioned women’s dresses.]
IH: So if you go further here there would have been his female companion's room. Her name was Anna Nerretti, and these are her items, her dresses, from her time period. When the Municipal Archives toured vistors through the house in 2006, there were actually many people who concentrated on the female character. For example, once, when we reached the "female companion's room" that had been sealed off for almost 40 years, there was a woman who started to cry. I asked, “Is there anything I can help you with?” She said “Don’t you notice, don’t you see that Anna was an artist herself! That these are her sculptures and that she got better, even better than Joseph! She was either killed by him or she needed to leave.” I said to her, “So you’re proposing a kind of Camille Claudel story.” “How stupid can you be not to see that, of course it’s a Camille Claudel story!”
So those incidents happen and they are truly intense.
NH: I think one of the most fascinating parts of the Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach is this idea of a legacy, of a legacy assessment. It’s like a delightful alternate reality where some agency would come in and archive and find value in the output of a recluse. When in fact this is never really the case.
IH: Exactly. However, sometimes it happens for real. Like with the Vivian Maier case in Chicago. Very interesting.
For my project, I actually invented the Municipal Archives out of a longing for such an institution. Because the normal thing people do is to order a few dumpsters and just toss everything and that’s it.
NH: Especially now with so many examples in the media of TV shows like “Hoarding,” which casts this kind of behavior as a mental or emotional disability. It’s easy to say, oh this has no value, it’s abnormal.
IH: Yes, I am glad you bring this up. Because I wonder how is it that we can claim that these people don't create something—in the absence of witnesses—that is of cultural value? Sometimes, when these cases get a second look, they are visionary and inspiring.
All these things, all these dressers are full of material from Wagenbach's time, from basically 1962 to 2000. People could put on archival gloves and open things and come upon layer upon layer of artifacts and things: clothes and photographs and sketchbooks and pills and letters. Many people would start exploring and have a very haptic experience, becoming physically engaged, to open this or to turn that on. This would enter into their physical memory. The same as the smell that you might remember; you might find it disgusting, but it creeps into your body. I try to make my work always accessible to smell and touch.
NH: So where are the missing sculptures installed at the moment?
IH: They are on loan in an exhibition titled Breaking and Entering. One artist in this show is David Hoffos, and he’s doing these dioramas with video projections. It’s beautiful work but he needs to have an absolutely dark space. So sometimes there is this bit of stray light that spills out from his work, and I developed this concept of illuminating my part of the show with stray light, just "accidentally" in a place where it is not supposed to be. For that I’ve choreographed an incident of water damage: people must cross over a scaffold, over a puddle and some dripping water, dripping from the ceiling. The visitors get this information that, ok Iris Häussler’s work was planned to be in this room but it’s actually empty, and all the sculptures are bunched in a corner because of the water damage. However, of course, everything is choreographed — the empty plinths and the array of crates and stored away sculptures in the dark, and now the stray light lights up the sculptures in this very dark and creepy way.
Straylight ArtLab Gallery at the University of Western Ontario, London, February 2011; Courtesy Iris Häussler
IH: A part of my work at the AGO is still installed. Are you ready for this adventure?
NH: Yes, absolutely!
[Iris takes me in her car down to the AGO to experience the project He Named Her Amber, installed at The Grange mansion from 2008-2010. The work was commissioned by the AGO on the occasion of the opening of its new Frank Gehry-designed museum extension. The project took the form of an archeological investigation surrounding a collection of artifacts that were discovered during the 2007 renovation of the historic Grange, the building that originally housed the museum. Visitors could tour the various sites of investigation with a tour guide.]
NH: So the installation is locked at the moment?
IH: Yes but part of it is not yet dismantled.
[Scene 3: As we walk into the AGO Iris knows everyone—every security guard, every volunteer. It seemed many still consider her an archaeologist working in the Grange House. We pass through the huge new Gehry atrium, then through a hallway that connects the museum extension to The Grange. We pause at the base of the grand staircase in the entryway.]
IH: So this is the old Grange. To give you some context: my piece started here—there was a sign under the Victorian portraits, indicating that here was the first excavation. We cut a hole into the plaster and there was a gap in the bricks and within it was found a little, unfired clay container filled with beeswax. They investigated it, did an X-ray and took a core sample, and found that a drop of dried blood from a Caucasian female had been embedded.
[As she tells me this, her voice lowers, almost conspiratorially. We continue on to the library, which still contains remnants of the installation left intact.]
He Named Her Amber, 2008-2010, Installation view of the library of the historic Grange: preparation of artefacts for exhibition. The solid cast of beeswax encases fabric and dried plant material; Photo: Carlo Catenazzi/AGO 2008 / Courtesy Iris Häussler
IH: So this is where the tour would start. The tour then would lead to the Goldwin-Smith Library, and the door to it would have been unlocked by the tour guide.
NH: So it’s like a real archeological site, a dig in progress.
[Inside the library there are a few pedestals displaying certain artifacts, and a long assessment table. A microscope, a computer, various X-rays, notes and scientific inscriptions indicate the evidence of an archaeological investigation underway.]
IH: Look at the dust!
Stereo microscopy identifies handwriting on Object 24, apparently a package of letters encased in beeswax; Courtesy Iris Häussler
[I look through the microscope at a collection of old letters that have been encased in wax.]
NH: So you can see the handwriting…This is so remarkable. You know Judith Scott—
IH: Yes! There are a number of art-history references in this project.
NH: Well, outsider art history…
IH: Yes, but you might also find references to Duchamp, or to Jeff Wall—but a lot my work relates to Art Brut. That the work is driven by an inner need is key for my protagonists.
[As Iris tapes up a broken lamp, I inspect the contents of the table, the X-rays, the sketches, the notes.]
IH: With all the artifacts I have this expectation: they should not be fake. I basically slip into different time periods, acquire different skills and methods. So all these items are basically originals, just not from that time, and when you X-ray them certainly everything is there, nothing is just invented.
NH: So there are two distinct practices, the formation of the objects then the investigation from a different perspective.
IH: Correct. And they have to hold up against this investigation, so I make them in a way that technically, craft-wise, and skill-wise they are as real as possible. Read the beads—can you do that?
[She indicates three rosaries arranged in a display case.]
NH: Read them? Do they say ART?
IH: Yeah! You’re good! Keep in mind: this is the first room you would have encountered on a tour. Here the tour guide would tell you the story of Mary O’Shea’s life. How she had her sleeping quarters in the attic, and how hot it was in the summer and how this influenced her method of coating her wax pieces with clay, and the background story about her family and the Irish famine and all that, while you are basically looking at these items. So, in a very subtle way, the first disclosure of my work is this rosary that says "ART." Of course no one reads it, unless they are asked to read the beads. But the moment you have seen it, it’s very obvious.
Come on guy work with me now…
[She talks to the ancient computer from 2001 as it slowly boots up. As it finally warms up an enlarged image of the waxen letters appears on the screen.]
IH: So that’s where the visitor could see what’s under the microscope. I use the authority of this instrument to communicate to the public that there is a serious investigation going on. I consulted a lot with a scientist about what you would have on an assessment table: you need a light table, lab-equipment, computers ... certain stuff that is in the language of a lab.
[At that moment, David Moos, Curator of Contemporary Art at the AGO, whom we had encountered on our way into the museum, appeared at the door of the library.]
David Moos: Can you give a tour?
DM: No? Just like an abbreviated one?
IH: Why? When?
DM: Right now.
IH: No, I’m talking with her about it!
DM: Well but then she could see the tour.
IH: I already went through the narrative.
DM: Well now you’re warmed up.
[They laugh, and I get the sense that I’m about to experience He Named Her Amber as a visitor would experience it, not as a privileged insider.]
DM: Okay I’ll be back and then you can see how this thing really works. I’m going to set it up proper.
[David leaves, and Iris then motions me over to inspect the objects on the pedestals. Under glass lay a variety of humble-looking objects, the relics of Mary O’Shea. Each pedestal contained a descriptive label detailing the contents of each artifact.]
IH: Here I’ll show you something. If you look at this X-ray it shows a skull of a rabbit. And then you can look at the artifact. This is the most unassuming artifact that you can imagine.
X-ray and interpretative drawing of the brick-artifact; Courtesy Iris Häussler
NH: It looks like a brick.
IH: So what the maid did, Mary O’Shea, she built a container out of clay, let it dry and then filled it with molten wax. Then she placed the skull of a rabbit in it. Created a lid over it, so that it looked right like a common brick. This was found in the floor of the wine cellar and would never had been found if it had not been for the butler who left a map that had all these places and dates. Otherwise no one would have noticed this one brick.
NH: So this butler, part of the servant staff…
IH: Yes, so basically I invented the maid, but I also needed a person of her time who would record her doings—and a contemporary person who tells the story through scientific investigation and re-enactment. ...
In this project, the labels on the showcases are really important. They lend the authority of the institution to the installation. This is where we are entering difficult terrain. Because we as visitors of the museum must believe in labels as if they were drug information leaflets. However, it’s not that I want to fool people, it’s more that I want to suggest to question authority of whatever origin. I think we should slowly wrap up before David comes back…
[But David Moos returns, with a visitor in tow.]
DM: So this was the original art gallery and about two years ago when we were doing some renovations a discovery was made of some historic material. Iris is the researcher working on this stuff. This is one of her assessment rooms, she can tell you the details of the story…
IH: Actually I’m a little bit under time pressure today but… Thanks David! This investigation is not accessible to the public anymore in general, I’m not sure how far David went in explaining it…
Visitor: Not far…
IH: Okay not far, okay I’ll give you a very very brief tour.
[Iris begins to outline the story to the visitor. About the discovery of the papers belonging to the first butler, within which was the hand-drawn map of the house marked with tiny x’s and dates. About the excavation instigated by the AGO to investigate this map, and the retrieval of thirty-two artifacts. About Mary O’Shea, the young Irish immigrant who was hired as a scullery maid at the Grange, and her habit, duly noted by the butler, of collecting candle wax and encasing objects into it: locks of hair, the claw of a cat, the baby tooth of one of the children. About the hidden room where Mary stored her supplies, which was eventually plastered over and forgotten, integrated into the architecture of the house. About the arms-length wax cone she created by digging with her bare hands under the floorboards and filling the cavity with beeswax, which upon X-ray was found to contain some shreds of fabric, some shards of china, a deer bone and a long braid of human hair. About how these objects were likely created as a practice of mourning, of loss, as it was determined that her family most likely all died during the famine in Ireland.]
The visitor is caught up with emotion and exclaims.. "Oh, it’s just heart-wrenching…"
I watch as these mute objects, of lowly unembellished material, ugly even, are suddenly shrouded in this story, this research, this narrative. From them emerges a picture of a woman obsessed, a romantic intrigue in a haunting 19th-century setting. The visitor sees, believes and experiences the installation emotionally, investing in each object a peculiar memory, a history.]
That the immensely researched and detailed installation is entirely a construction is revealed only later. At the end of the tour Iris asked if the visitor would like to be updated on the project, and took down her contact information. Likely the next day she would send a “disclosure” to the visitor that she had just, unwittingly, participated in a project of contemporary art. All visitors received a disclosure after a tour of the Amber project, reading:
My work was created to be experienced as historic fact, as a method for a direct and personal involvement of the visitor. It creates an experience that is not filtered by the categories of contemporary art that we would normally apply to such a tour, it provides a participatory sense of discovery. This principle has been called "haptic conceptual art", a practice that deals with deep questions of the human condition, but initiates them through direct experience, rather than through theoretical discourse.
If this work were labelled as a project of contemporary art, would this protect the visitor, or deny the key experience?
In the end, whether these people are “real” or not is of little interest. The art lies in the witnessing.
Häussler is currently working on a new project of similar scope and intensity as He Named Her Amber. As the nature of her work demands secrecy, she was unable to divulge any details, besides the fact that it will emerge some time next year.
On April 13th at Columbia College in Chicago, however, she will be lecturing with David Buckland about the Cape Farewell Project.
Artslant would like to thank Iris Häussler for her assistance in making this interview possible.