Saturday, September 16, 2006

Creating visceral art in a local neighbourhood

Today, the Toronto Star published Murray Whyte’s "Homage to a man’s faux life". He reports that in the front yard of a house in his neighbourhood, a sign read "Municipal Archives: Legacy Assessment, Joseph Wagenbach." In the "field office" tent on the driveway, a man in a lab coat told Whyte: "Mr. Wagenbach, the 70-something resident, had suffered a stroke and was in long-term care. His home was being assessed for 'historic and cultural value.'"

Whyte signed up for one of the tours offered through Joseph’s house, "Across the threshold lay an interior nightmarescape so intensely disturbing and captivating that it was hard to parse my own reaction."

Whyte continues, "Joseph, a German immigrant who lived in seclusion, had spent decades creating rough sculptures of animal figures — cats, rabbits, skinned and whole — in concrete, plaster and molten wax. His windows were covered in newspaper from the 1970s, keeping him buffered from the outside world as he churned out his dark creations in an apparent effort to exorcise his demons. They filled every corner of his tiny home. One giant, amorphous wax figure, with the recognizable cast of a human foot poking out the top, hung from an industrial hook in the kitchen like a side of beef. A column of ghostly grey wax rose from floor to ceiling, the heads of infant dolls embedded inside. Anxiety, sorrow, outrage, fear all swirled in an incoherent wash of visceral emotion. What happened to this man? And what right did I have to be here, in his private world? At the same time, I needed to know more."

Whyte discovers that Iris Haussler, "the project’s senior archivist" is really a conceptual artist from Germany, staging an elaborate deception for neighbours signing up to tour Joseph’s house. According to Whyte, Haussler’s art installation is a "love letter" to Toronto. The reporter says, "Joseph's house gave us, as neighbours, a something to share, and a reason to go beyond a polite nod in passing. [Haussler] also tapped into a collective need to believe: the urge to feel that the city we live in is more than brick walls, drawn curtains and locked doors. But she also gave us something more significant: the chance to feel before we think."

Local photographer and curator, Marcus Schubert said, "At Joseph's house, you walk into something that is pure, that is genuine. . .What Iris has done is she has offered to the public the experience of becoming innocent again." Tours will continue through November, despite the rouse’s revelation. Whyte says, "For Amy Lavender Harris, a professor of geography at York [University], it may not matter. Harris knew the truth since the project's inception, but on her first tour through it, 'my suspension of disbelief was so complete, I started crying. . .There's a truth in it that allows you to live within the story.'"

Not everyone accepts the deception. To counter Haussler’s concern that the house may be pelted with eggs and tomatoes, Whyte concludes, "It should be garlanded in flowers, a thank-you from a community who, for a time, at least, she allowed to gawk in grateful amazement, and embrace wonder in the midst of our chilly urban lives."

More about city culture:
Reading Toronto
Imagining Toronto