An Encounter with Joseph Wagenbach
“Before you enter, we must ask you to sign a waiver. Should you stumble and hurt yourself, we cannot be held responsible. The space you are about to visit is cluttered. Joseph Wagenbach lived as a recluse. He came to Robinson Street in 1962. Have you read the biography attached to the door? Good. Then you understand that his intention was to keep people out. As far as we know, his works were shown to nobody until this summer, when our assessment of the contents of his home began. If you are highly allergic to plaster dust, we advise you to wear a lab coat, mask, and latex gloves. We can provide you with these. You have no allergies? Very good.
“I should add that our biography of Joseph is quite limited. He suffered a massive stroke a few months ago and is now living in a nursing home. Though we keep in regular contact with him, he is not very lucid. Fortunately, we have his diaries available to us. They are in German. Fortunately, our head archivist reads German. We know that Joseph was sixteen when the war ended, that he was living with his mother in the small town of his birth, that both his older brothers had been killed at the front and his father taken prisoner by the Russians. Joseph had become head of the household and was helping his mother run the country inn that provided their livelihood. When his father returned, Joseph immediately left for Berlin, where he became a peripheral member of the art scene. We know that he later spent four year in Paris, where he married. His wife, however, did not follow him to Canada. At Robinson Street, a woman named Anna seems to have lived under the same roof with him until 1974. We are unclear as to the exact nature of their relationship. We have been unable to track her down. We suspect she was his model. If you’ll follow me out of the field office, we can go inside now.
“Please refrain from touching any of the art pieces. Photographs, maps, and other objects you are welcome to pick up and examine. Some of the content of his work is of a disturbing and sensitive nature. The village where he lived throughout the war was situated in northern Germany, not far from Bergen-Belsen. We believe this may have had an impact on his work. He seems quite obsessed with rabbits. They were common in the area where he grew up. A favourite dish, they were raised for eating and also hunted. They were considered a fertility symbol. Joseph Wagenbach’s work is very inward looking. We are trying to determine its cultural value. Is it truly art? A continuity of theme exists, and while his methods are crude, he was not uninformed. If any pieces disturb you, please feel free to leave the house at any time. If you’ll follow me now. Please close the screen door behind you. Thank you.”
A low white cottage, separated from the street by a small yard overgrown with towering weeds, thistles tall as my shoulder, and goldenrod. The vegetation conspired with the modesty of the house to create a pastoral illusion of tranquility. Almost no cars drove past. For a few moments, the city became a fiction, Toronto’s mad urgency a suspended memory. I was standing in the quiet remove of a dead end. A stone’s throw and Robinson Street abruptly terminated at the foot of a concrete wall. I’d arrived at an ending. A beginning was sure to follow.
Joseph’s was the last in a row of three cottages. Its new metal chimney gleamed in the late-afternoon light. His dwelling appeared to be in perfect repair. He’d replaced the wooden clapboard with modern vinyl siding, not long ago by the looks of it, and he’d had the roof reshingled. Only his front yard had slipped free of his control and care; only his garden spoke of his unpremeditated, extended absence. The young archivist, my guide, knocked on Joseph’s door and waited a moment, as if someone might answer. She considered this a gesture of courtesy, she explained. When nobody came to the door, she opened it and I stepped inside Joseph’s home.
A man’s winter gloves and a roll of masking tape lay on the windowsill. The windows were papered over to prevent anyone from seeing in. A narrow sofa, covered by a blanket and with a pillow at one end, appeared to have served as Joseph’s bed. An open passage-a stretch of bare floor less than two feet wide-allowed me to move carefully forward between the makeshift bed and a low table upon which two aged televisions stood, stacked one on top of the other. The two televisions served as pedestal to a cement sculpture of a lynx. The lynx was a crude creation, grass and wire protruding, the animal’s shape unclear, blurred by the rough application of the cement.
The light in Joseph’s living room had the brown quality of murky tea. I glanced at the paper covering the windows. Dust floated in the air and rested on every surface. I was surrounded on all sides by grey sculptures-some splattered with thick brown wax, others coated in it. There was almost no place for me to stand. I kept my elbows close to my sides. The two television sets required no explanation, but nevertheless explanations began multiplying inside my mind: depression had exhausted Joseph and he’d lost the will to rid himself of the first television when he acquired the second; he’d fervently believed that the life of any object needn’t ever end, that original function will be subsumed; he’d suffered from a childish desire not to be parted from anything that was his. I was starting to know him. I suspected all three of my explanations were true. I could not ask him for the truth. We rarely can ask for the truth. I had no choice but to construct an idea of him. Had he been present, politeness would have prevented me, in any case, from posing the questions proliferating in my mind. His house was a place of proliferation. He must have been a man of slender, modest build to have navigated successfully, day after day, in and out of his cramped living room. Already I was thinking of him in the past tense, as if the stroke he’d suffered had ended his life. He was no longer capable of keeping me, or anyone else, out of his home.
The sculptures were crowding in on me. Rabbits and hares were suddenly everywhere. They surrounded the only usable chair-a vinyl-covered “easy” chair, oddly narrow with a stiff, tall back and a sunken seat. They perched on pedestals, they were mummified in concrete, they were dipped in wax, they formed thin poles (each one extruding from the one beneath); they hung by their ears from wires. They were slender and they were fat. They could be divided into two categories: those that hung like flesh from hooks and those that stood poised, heroic, on pedestals. The flesh and the mind, the crude and the noble. What was I doing, standing inside Joseph Wagenbach’s soul, dissecting, questioning, and ordering? The lovely rabbit-goddess on my left, with her soft skin of white wax, her fine ears thrown back, and her long, delicate nose quivering, her round breasts alert and her strong thighs holding her in precarious equilibrium at the summit of her pole-where had she come from? From where in his life had Joseph extracted her? Clues lay all about.
Here, tucked in the corner of a picture frame, was a black-and-white snapshot of a young, dark-haired girl wearing a summer dress and standing under an old tree, her feet immersed in thick grass. In her bare arms she cradled a large live rabbit. Here, pinned to the wall, was a postcard showing ancient Greek caryatids that Joseph perhaps visited or dreamed of visiting. If these images now constituted clues for me, had they also been clues for him? Had he known what he was searching for? How many of us do? Another snapshot, this one taped to the wall-at the seaside, six lithe young men wearing old-fashioned bathing clothes, balanced on one another’s shoulders to form a living pyramid of youthful masculinity. A paperback titled Blake, and a thin yellowed manual for learning the English language lay on the floor. I glanced at my guide and received a nod of permission. I picked up the manual and opened it. The manual instructed its reader to say, should the occasion arise, “The mistress is setting the table herself. She is bringing a glass bowl filled with strawberries.” I closed the book and set it where I’d found it, on the floor. An overturned wooden chair had acquired a human foot. The wax foot, attached to one of the chair’s broken legs, pointed nowhere in particular, while a clump of disturbing hair hung limp from a second leg, also broken. The plaster likeness of a human face, fastened to the upturned underside of the chair’s seat, wore an expression of repose.
At the centre of the small room, where once a pot-bellied stove likely stood, a column climbed straight up and through the low ceiling, disappearing into whatever space existed between the ceiling and the roof. In striking contrast with its surroundings, this sculpted “column,” or modernist “stovepipe,” possessed a formality, a clarity that made it an oasis. I rested my eyes. Here was order. I drank in its clean lines, simple form, and smoothness. Its construction became apparent. Clay flowerpots had been fixed in a repeating vertical pattern, the inverted balancing on the upright. I thought of Brancusi’s column in Târgu Jiu, Romania-a sculpture I’d seen in photographs but never in real life.
“He would have seen Brancusi’s Endless Column, or postcards of it, we are quite sure he would have,” the archivist commented, noticing which sculpture had caught my attention. “Later you can view the top. In another room, there’s a ladder leading partway into the attic. Well, it’s not really an attic-more of a crawlspace and you can’t go in, but you will be able to see, because when Joseph sealed off the space he used old windows, and he installed a light. We assume he wanted the top of the column to be seen, if not by us, then by him. Its base is below the floor. He cut a hole in the floorboards and dug down several feet into the earth. That space we’ve had to close off.”
She opened a binder. I hadn’t been aware until that moment that she was carrying a binder. It contained photographs documenting her findings and those of her colleagues, a rough catalogue of Joseph Wagenbach’s work in its original context. “As you can see in these pictures of the space beneath the floor, numerous sculptures of rabbits are lying in the dirt at the base of the column. They are made from plaster moulding. Some have been shattered, others not. This is delicate subject matter. It’s hard not to think of Bergen-Belsen.” I nodded rather dismissively. I was no longer listening to her. I didn’t want to discuss Bergen-Belsen. I felt she expected a reaction from me, a prescribed or clichéd response. Bergen-Belsen seemed to me a name not to be spoken aloud. A name better read on a page in private, so that the silence it released could sink in. Better to build a stovepipe from flowerpots and scatter shattered effigies of rabbits around its base than speak the name aloud.
Something else had caught my attention. A wooden bookshelf had had all its shelves removed. Nothing but the frame remained. This stood against the wall behind Joseph’s immaculate “stovepipe,” or “column.” Stacked inside the frame, and tidy as firewood, were dozens of identical cylindrical forms about six inches long. They looked like plaster casts of artillery shells. I suspected Joseph had used an ordinary glass bottle to give them their basic shape. In any case, his ammunition was ready, on hand, and neatly arranged. He’d sanded each “artillery shell” until it felt soft as silk. I couldn’t figure out when he’d done so. Because they were clean, smooth, and pure, the “stovepipe” and the “shells” seemed new. They felt timeless in their simplicity. And yet it made more sense if he’d created them before the invasion of the rabbits; if he’d done so in a state of decisiveness, having just arrived in Canada, in his new home, and having not yet lost “Anna,” his muse, the one who gave his hares and rabbits their full breasts and voluptuous thighs. Perhaps he’d created the formal “artillery shells” and “stovepipe” before he met her; only in the wake of her departure had the rabbits proliferated, then lost their grace, become bulbous, and had to be mummified in concrete, strung up by their ears. He’d been fighting too many battles. I looked around me. I was not yet ready to leave. His anguish felt familiar; his desire for solitude was growing in me.
He had not closed the drawer of the table beside his easy chair. It contained more letters and snapshots. I reached over and pulled out an envelope. But of course it wasn’t he who’d most recently left the drawer open. One of the archivists had done so. I was not, I reminded myself, alone. The young archivist stood patiently beside me. She and her colleagues had meticulously sorted through the contents of this room, made copies of every snapshot, inventoried the envelopes and maps, letters and books, then returned everything to its prescribed place within disorder. They’d recreated Joseph’s chaos for others, including me, to examine.
The archivist glanced at her watch. There was another group waiting outside. I was a group of one. Four were the most allowed through at a time. The envelope in my hand was unsealed. I was tempted to pull out and unfold the letter it contained, but I did not want to abuse the extraordinary privileges my young guide had granted me so far-the freedom to handle anything, with the exception of Joseph’s artworks. Only his sculptures she’d insisted I not touch. I wouldn’t have done so even in the absence of her warning. I suspected she’d broken several rules in exercising such leniency with me. If she gave every visitor almost boundless liberty, Joseph’s possessions would not survive. Should I, following my visit, ask to speak with a more senior archivist and mention that insufficient measures were being taken to protect the integrity of Joseph’s possessions?
And yet I didn’t want to cause trouble for the very person whose generosity I’d taken advantage of. She was not, she’d admitted, a true archivist, but an art student who worked part-time for the archive and had had the remarkable good luck to be assigned to this project. She was incapable of hiding her passion and her anxiety. “What will become of his work? I don’t know what should be done. If it is removed and placed in a gallery, will it lose its meaning? It is so much a part of his house. If the house itself could be made into a museum, but that would take money. And on the other hand, in this space, do the pieces, all crowded together, really get seen?” She kept repeating, “We are trying to determine the cultural value of his work. We are eager to hear what you and other members of the community think. We want to hear your impressions. His work never became part of a dialogue. We want to know your reactions.” When I told her his work reminded me of Giacometti, of Beuys, of Louise Bourgeois, she blushed with pleasure and thanked me. But that was when we’d first entered, and now she was glancing at her watch for a second time.
I asked if I might open the envelope I’d just taken from Joseph’s drawer. After all, a few minutes earlier, she’d allowed me to hold to the light a snapshot of a young boy wearing a soldier’s helmet-a round-faced child, dressed in summer shorts, standing at attention, clutching a wooden rifle at his side, the brick wall of a German farmhouse solid behind him. “No,” she said. “I’m sorry, but we must move on.” She was not giving me permission to open Joseph’s letter. Even she had her limits. We stepped into the kitchen. A tuberous sculpture-the largest work yet, thickly coated in brown wax, almost dripping with it-hung from a sturdy hook screwed into the ceiling. Embedded within the sculpture’s fleshy folds, its bulges and flaps, were a teddy bear, the remains of a doll, a stuffed rabbit, and other less recognizable, ill-defined forms. Three saucepans, encrusted in brown wax, sat on the stove. In a fourth, Joseph had been heating a mixture of tar and rope. Two more rabbits hung by their ears from the back of a folded ironing board that leaned against the wall. Above the ironing board, a pair of Joseph’s black socks and a tea towel dangled-his actual laundry-dry by now and somewhat stiff, attached with clothes pegs to a laundry rack of the collapsible sort commonly used in European apartments.
Time was running out, my young guide informed me gently. I thought of the rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, who pulls from his waistcoat an overly large pocket watch. What stories had Joseph’s mother read to him? A box on the shelf above his sink indicated that he drank camomile tea. But time was running out. The numerous takeout coffee cups, discarded about the kitchen, he must have brought back from frequent excursions to a neighbourhood coffee shop. “If you’ll please follow me into the back hallway.”
It was a short hallway. His tools hung in straight rows from nails pounded into the wall. Here, in this passage, light and order prevailed over gloom and chaos. A door led outside. Sunlight entered. I was able at last to step back a few feet, to observe from a distance, to gain perspective, or so I believed. Joseph, I felt certain, had enjoyed standing in this bright hallway, taking stock of his enterprise, stepping back, coming in from outside, firewood in his arms. Or perhaps he’d been holding an old broom when happiness arrived. Something, after all, had prevented him from destroying his work. His work had kept him company. It had protected him. If happiness had visited him, it had done so here, in this passage. It had entered at the very spot where I now stood.
But happiness’s visits had been brief and rare. He’d looked along the hall, through the encrusted kitchen, into his murky living room and had contemplated the inadequacy of his labours, his limited talent, his meagre output-thirty years to produce enough grubby, crude sculptures to fill one filthy, barely habitable room. His thoughts and feelings, which he shared with nobody, he’d had the audacity to make use of to create these awkward objects. The horror of it struck him. His most private life he’d contorted and put on display. It was all a performance, an act of shameful vanity and fraud. Who did he take himself for? A true artist? Others would mock and disparage. Nobody must see. Nobody would be capable of comprehending. His suffering was incomprehensible, unique. Nobody must see it.
I turned and noticed his desk at the end of the hall, the sketches and drawings taped to the walls on either side. I could see him. Here at his desk, I could see him drawing, whereas in the murky living room I’d imagined him as dead, mummified like one of the stuffed animals embedded in his sculptures. His drawings inhaled with desire, and exhaled; the lines raced, thickened, swerved. They were alive. He’d just stepped in from outside, from stacking wood in the back yard where sunlight was falling through the leaves, falling onto the bushes where indistinct rustlings might mean the presence of a rabbit. He sat down at his desk, in the alcove formed by the end of the hallway, and he drew her. Anna. He taped his sketches to the walls, covered every inch, so that she surrounded him-his naked woman with the fine, elongated head of a wild hare. His lines were swift, confident. The weight of her thigh, the elegance of her ankle-he captured both; the line issuing from his hand gave itself without hesitation. She opened willingly to his gaze. He knew her flesh as intimately as his own, more so, with a tenderness he could never bestow on himself. He walked out of the house, Anna on his arm. But, no. She was gone. She’d given up, couldn’t bear it any longer. She’d left him. The truth cannot be escaped. Despite her departure, he’d continued to draw her. He’d been inhabited by her until the end. An elderly man-well groomed, polite, reticent, according to the neighbours who passed him in the street-he’d made frequent visits to the local coffee shop. I could see him perfectly. He’d buttoned up his solitude as if it were a raincoat, and had turned up his collar.
“This last room constitutes, we believe, a form of shrine,” the archivist explained once I’d squeezed past her and through the small doorway. “When we found the room, it was sealed up. We have tested the dust. We suspect he closed it off about thirty years ago. We can’t be sure of the exact date.” Two summer dresses, belonging to a woman-surely Anna-hung on hangers from a hook on the back of the door. Her straw hat, its brilliant orange raffia flowers circling its crown, sat wrapped in plastic on a high shelf. A dozen or more delicate statues of rabbit-goddesses, perched on slender columns, left barely enough room for Anna’s bottle of eau de toilette and her powder compact, on the dusty dresser at the foot of the bed. Her red sandals she’d slipped off and shoved under the dresser. I could see them lying there.
I looked about me but couldn’t tell from where exactly the tenderness that filled the small room was emanating. Did it belong to him or to her? A woman made of cement lay languid on her back. The work table she occupied was of the same length and width as the narrow single bed standing parallel to it. The bed was made, the sheets pulled up and tucked in. But the blanket, ever so slightly crumpled, looked as if someone had been lying on it moments ago. Had Anna posed on her bed while Joseph sculpted her? Surely the archivists didn’t allow visitors to lie down? The cement nude, given its size and weight, could only have been sculpted within the room. It will be impossible to remove in one piece, I told myself. If his work finds a home in a museum, she will have to be sawed in two or left behind. Joseph’s sketches will be easy to remove and exhibit elsewhere.
Drawings of her climbed up to the high shelf where her summer hat waited in its plastic cocoon. They were as painfully expressive as those surrounding his desk. He’d desired no one else. His eyes and hands knew all her angles and curves, her length and weight, the strength of her, and what within her could not be argued with.
Of an immense map of Germany, of the country as it existed before the Second World War, a portion protruded, tacked to the north wall of the passageway leading to Anna’s room; the rest disappeared behind a stack of suitcases and a series of narrow shelves that held boxes of various sizes, which in turn held books, flyers, posters, magazines, stubs of pencil, snippets of string, misplaced keys, elastic bands, the whatnot of Joseph Wagenbach’s life. Berlin, being in the north, was visible; so was Bergen-Belsen. The latter had been marked with an X. Marked by Joseph or by Anna? Was Anna the handsome blond in the snapshot I’d spotted, a moment ago, before leaving her room? The snapshot, in the drawer of the bedside table separating Anna’s bed from Joseph’s work table, had caught my eye because the woman it portrayed wore a polka-dot dress, a dress that surprised me. The woman was dangling a cluster of grapes, playfully, above her open mouth. Her free hand she held frozen in a gesture that seemed taken from a modern dance. She smiled sideways at the camera as the shutter closed. The picture troubled me. The woman was too elegantly dressed to be Anna, her hair the work of a highly skilled coiffeur.
I’d picked up her photo to look at it more closely. Beneath it lay a smaller snapshot, a quick, informal portrait of a middle-aged woman sitting in a bright farm kitchen, her hands clasped loosely in her lap. I’d turned over the snapshot and read on its back the word Mutter, written in pencil in an impatient, slanting hand. The hasty inscription proved only that the placid woman with the gentle smile and kind eyes was somebody’s mother and possibly Joseph’s. Her hands, though resting in her lap, were likely not accustomed to idleness. She could have been Anna’s mother. If the kitchen where she sat was in the town of Joseph’s birth, and therefore not far from Bergen-Belsen, she showed no sign of awareness of the slaughter occurring only miles away. No date accompanied the scribbled word Mutter.
“I’m afraid we must keep moving. There’s just time for you to take a quick look in the attic, if you’d like.” I climbed several rungs. The rungs were no more than ten inches across. I could barely squeeze myself into the opening that was as narrow as the ladder, and seemed almost to have been created for it, though likely the opposite was true. I climbed one more rung and could go no higher. My head and shoulders were enclosed in a sort of glass box constructed from old windows. They were not quite the sort I’d watched my father put up, when I was a child, as winter approached. They were not as thick as storm windows, but familiar all the same. I peered out from inside my glass case. For a second all I could see was darkness, then suddenly I became aware of her: a lovely rabbit, again with the breasts of a woman. She was sculpted from white wax, and from the summit of Joseph Wagenbach’s column she dominated a field of torn insulation that was soft as snow or rabbit fur. A makeshift spotlight illuminated her. I climbed back down the miniature ladder. My visit was over.
As I left, I shut the screen door behind me. From the sidewalk I took one last look at the low white cottage that stood-jarringly clean, dressed in its new vinyl siding-behind its dishevelled garden. When I tilted my head and stared straight up, the sky seemed higher and bluer than I remembered it being earlier in the day. I walked up the street and got in my car. The key fit easily into the ignition, the engine started without a hitch, as if nothing had happened, as if Joseph Wagenbach did not exist, and I felt a lurch of childish disappointment that the world had not altered itself in some fashion to reflect the intensity of the experience I’d just undergone. I’d entered and poked about inside the complex, tormented life and work of a reclusive German sculptor, whose very existence had only months ago been discovered. His neighbours had paid him little attention. He appeared to have no friends or relatives. As I drove away, his story, all the fragments of it spliced together, looped around and around inside my head. I’d made my secret entry into someone else’s inner world, without their knowledge or clear permission. At the first stop sign, I slowed down, looked both ways, and drove onward.
That night, to my surprise, I slept soundly. When the alarm went off in the morning, I surfaced, unwillingly as a fish with a hook in its lip. I did not want to see light slipping in under the blinds, or to hear the voice of a neighbour calling to her child in the street below, shouting to be heard over the honking of a passing car. Warmth and a blank mind, or if not blank, one barely marked-that’s what I wanted. I wanted a mind upon which, at most, delicate shadows were being cast by drifting thoughts, by concerns elusive and shapeless as clouds. I was not yet prepared to think, to calculate my way through another day. My limbs felt pleasingly heavy. Suddenly I remembered a name: Joseph Wagenbach. His name led me back into his house. All over again, and backward, I descended the ladder, observed the map of Germany, entered Anna’s room.
I got out of bed, wrapped myself in my dressing gown, and went into my study. There was no question in my mind-the work of Joseph Wagenbach had to be preserved and, if at all possible, kept in its present surroundings. Surely a patron of the arts could be found, prepared to finance, at least in part, the creation of a small museum no larger than a cottage? I’d mentioned this hope to the archivist as we’d emerged from Joseph’s home. I’d expressed my willingness to contact friends and agencies, to try to raise money. Joseph was, of course, alive and his permission would be required. But if his lucidity was as marred and fleeting as the archivist had led me to believe, then could Joseph’s true wishes be known?
I turned on my computer. Of several e-mails waiting in chronological order in my inbox, one in particular caught my eye. It was from Iris Häussler, the head archivist at 105 Robinson Street. Iris’s assistant, who’d acted as my guide, had been true to her word. She’d passed on my e-mail address and conveyed my eagerness to help with the challenge of creating a museum, if such an undertaking proved to be morally, legally, and financially feasible. Without delay, Iris had contacted me to inquire if my intentions were serious and to thank me for my interest in the work she was assessing. I opened her message, quite certain I already knew what I was about to read. I read:
Dear Martha –
Thank you for visiting The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach, where my assistant gave you a tour today.
Occasionally, I feel obliged to note as a postscript that Joseph Wagenbach’s life story is a fiction. It is an important part of my project to allow the observer to interact with the environment in an unfiltered and unhindered way. However, I am aware of the potential awkwardness that may be caused in certain circumstances that might rely on the veracity of Joseph’s biography.
Of course, this raises the question of what it means to say Joseph is or is not “real”; this is one of the multiple layers of my installation.
I would hope you can keep this additional information in confidence, so as to allow others their own discoveries.
The project will be “revealed” with an accompanying exhibition at the Goethe-Institut and an academic panel discussion on September 20. I will be happy to forward you the announcement later next week. Please feel free to contact me in case you would like to have more information before that date.
Herzlichst – Iris
Only after I’d read the words on the screen twice from beginning to end was I willing to concede that Joseph was not real in the sense I’d been led to believe, that he no more lived in a nursing home than I did, that his life story had been invented by a woman, the same woman who’d created the sculptures I’d seen; who’d filled the drawers of every piece of furniture at 105 Robinson Street with old photographs, maps, and letters; who’d furnished each room, dropped decrepit grammar books on the floor, selected tins of food and put them in the kitchen cupboards, covered the windows with newspapers dating from the 1970s, drawn the tender nudes taped to the walls, placed “Anna’s” red sandals under the dresser and her summer hat on its high shelf.
I’d been deliberately misled, strung along. I’d fallen for a ruse. She’d had no right to lie to me. And what did she mean by “unfiltered” experience? I read her e-mail for a third time. Yes, her excuse for maintaining a deception was to offer an “unfiltered” encounter with Joseph’s work. Didn’t the archivists act as filters? Was human experience ever unfiltered? For a full five minutes, I felt indignant-and then a sense of hollowness set in. I was losing Joseph. I felt a new anger, one born of loss rather than hurt pride. Worse than being made a fool of, I was being denied. It was a deeper anger, but also one softened by sadness. The man whose emotions, whose darkest fears and conflicted inner life I’d pieced together, using every clue available to me-the man I’d come to know through his sculptures-did not exist.
I’d taken such pleasure in guessing at Joseph’s secrets, voyeuristically peering, going through his house. Creating him in my mind, I’d felt more fascination than sorrow. Perhaps to suit my mood, my excitement at having come upon such intriguing and expressive works, I’d con
yself that his life had not been without value or happiness. To Joseph in his nursing home I’d not given much thought, no doubt from guilt and perhaps the sense that if I’d allowed him to become too real, I would no longer have felt free to explore his home. In any case, I’d been too caught up in his past to concentrate on his present.
I got up and walked out of my study, and in again, out and in again. As I did so, my thoughts rearranged themselves. It struck me that I’d been misleading myself into believing I was losing Joseph. The Joseph Wagenbach I’d created in my mind, in response to the sculptures and all the other contents of the house at 105 Robinson Street, nobody could take from me, not even Iris Häussler. He was mine. He would always remain real for me, as real as Emma Bovary or Scrooge.
I returned to his low white cottage and entered again. Beside the column, or stovepipe, made of flowerpots, stood a real wood stove I’d not noticed before. But for the most part, Joseph’s work and the interior of the house corresponded perfectly to my memory of them from the previous day. I continued with my analysis of his work, filled in more gaps in his life story, and further embellished my understanding of his motives and personality. When I came back outside, I discovered that Robinson Street did not end at the foot of a concrete wall. The wall was my invention.
Iris Häussler, I learned from a second e-mail, was born in Germany in 1962 and immigrated to Canada in 2001. She studied art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. To the best of my knowledge she is at this moment alive and well. I cannot tell you if she is happy or suffering from a broken heart, as I have not yet been invited into her home and been given her private correspondence to read and her personal photo albums to leaf through. I thank her for introducing me to The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach.
This text was first published in Brick (see links), Summer 2007.