IRIS HAUSSLER: OU TOPOS Toronto City Hall underground parking garage, 100 Queen West, entrance on Bay. See listing.
While many artists strive for star status, Iris Häussler prefers to disappear. She makes art not as herself but as a series of characters she inhabits: shut-ins, outsiders and hoarders with an artistic bent whose fears and obsessions compel their odd creations.
She calls her work haptic (referring to the sense of touch) conceptual installations or, because of their elaborate backstories, novels in three dimensions.
“My characters are often underdogs, people who are developing obsessive work out of an inner need,” she says. “When visitors come across their legacies, they notice that these people have dedicated their lives to something bigger in life. Observing that can be inspiring!”
The installations are almost a form of theatre, often including a cast of fictional archivists, archaeologists, curators and other intermediaries who uncover and exhibit the main characters’ art and sometimes comment on authentic-looking websites.
We know from Nuit Blanche that this is a Häussler installation, but when I meet her at her garage workshop, she suggests I write this without mentioning her and just say a trailer was found in the City Hall parking lot.
This leaves me in a quandary: will anything I write serve as a spoiler for those who might come upon her installation unawares? That’s her goal: “I love when they’re experienced as discoveries, because you’re engaging emotionally in a deeper way than with a composed piece.”
Häussler’s 1989 Ou Topos was the Vienna apartment of a man who, in preparation for a Cold War nuclear attack, lined its walls with food cans covered in sheets of lead. The Nuit Blanche version centres on his grandson and his elaborate story.
As Häussler tells it, “Gisela finds a box she’d brought from Europe with things belonging to her father, who died in Vienna in 1989, the year her son Tino was born: old food cans wrapped in lead, notes and stamps, newspaper clippings and other odd objects.”
Instead of throwing it away, Häussler explains, she passes it on to Tino, who discovers that these objects actually camouflage the loss of his grandfather’s dear friend, Ukrainian filmmaker Vladimir Shevchenko (a real person), who died after the atomic fallout of Chernobyl.
“Investigating his grandfather’s surreal, more poetic than functional provisions, Tino is infected by the underlying angst of a quarter-century ago… that’s regained power after Fukushima.”
Tino starts hoarding food, wrapping it in lead and studying the long-lasting impact of radioactivity. Ultimately, he drops out of society, abandons his astronomy studies at U of T, stops visiting his family and breaks up with his girlfriend.
“In spring of this year, Nuit Blanche curators come across Tino’s remodelled trailer,” Häussler says, keeping on with her strategy. “Researching it, they find that its camouflage-spray-painted stencil pattern comes from Shevchenko’s photos of deformed oak leaves collected after the Chernobyl catastrophe.”
If Häussler is now too well known to present her work as some new outsider art environment that could appear in the pages of Raw Vision, she says this hasn’t substantially changed how she approaches it or how it is experienced.
“Our desire to suspend our disbelief, to get our longings confirmed, makes us want to protect the story,” she says.
Her respect for history gives the work solidity, and the strangeness of the characters and their creations casts a kind of spell that leaves us feeling enchanted. Those of us who’ve seen works like her AGO-commissioned installation at the Grange, He Named Her Amber, look forward to the people she’ll introduce us to next.