Truth or Dare

Two works by Iris Haeussler: He Named her Amber and Honest Threads.
(talk given in the basement of Honest Eds, Toronto, March 5, 2009, as part of the Truth or Dare panel, arranged by the Koffler Gallery.)

Too hot, and the wax will burn her fingers. It must be soft and warm, softer than she can allow herself to be, if she wants to survive, which she does.  Most days, Mary O’Shea does desire to survive. As she rolls the warm bee’s wax in the palm of her hand it releases its sweetness, an almost cloying perfume. One sphere, two, three. She hides them in her apron. They are hers. Four, five; the little balls of wax remain mute. What if she were to conceal something inside them – fingernail clippings, a child’s tooth, a curl of hair, cinnamon, sugar, blood. There, now each globule has a voice, and the story locked inside the girl begins to acquire a shape.

Where is she to hide her little waxen planets? The house is her sole ally. It knows all about secrecy, its walls and floors harbour abundant rumour. Pry up a loose floorboard, remove a brick, tap at a crack in the plaster. She inserts her treasure; returns everything to its proper place.  Now, when she enters a room the walls and floor speak to her, and in a language only she can comprehend; she is mistress of her domain. She works all the more swiftly, with a deft efficiency. The dialogue between her and the objects she’s concealed reverberates with increasing intensity within her skull; it bangs against the bone. She suffers from headaches. Yet, she must at all costs continue. Secret knowledge is privilege. She is heaping privileges upon herself.

The hot liquid wax fills the hollow brick made of cool, damp clay. Quickly it covers over the carefully placed rabbit’s skull. The brief time it takes for the wax to thicken, the skull remains visible. There, now it has vanished, every trace consumed by hard opacity.

Mary increases the scale of her enterprise, the frenzy of her labour mounts; she must push on, push forward; she takes larger risks, courts discovery. Every secret hides within it the desire to be revealed, to breathe freely. If she continues working at her present pace, with such audacity, she will be discovered, exposed. It is only a question of time.

What I’ve just read to you is my version of Mary O’Shea – a young woman compelled to express her inner truth, yet trapped in a world that offers her no opportunity for honest discourse regarding herself, caught in a society uninterested in the depth of a scullery maid’s feelings and experiences. Every visitor to the Grange carries away their own imagining of Mary. For many she is a Celtic witch, casting protective spells, or the resident abortionist, conjuring miscarriages. Was the butler, Henry Whyte, her lover?

What seems certain is that Mary O’Shea, the 17 year old maid hired on at the Grange in 1828, understood the potency of secrets – the feelings of privilege they bestow, the momentum they create, and that no matter how quietly a secret waits, it is inexorably drawn towards the moment of its own revelation – that transformative point in time when it will cease to be a secret and become something much larger. And all this Iris Haeussler understands even better than did Mary O’Shea.

Iris Haeussler is a master storyteller, that is to say, a skilled manipulator of intensely evocative narrative. She knows that listeners love to feel privileged. She takes them in small groups to encounter a story in the making, and asks for their participation. She knows how important it is to leave a great deal unsaid, to invite the listener to engage, to invent.

Words are apt to rush in, to tell all, to give away the ending; while objects are patient. Objects contain an energy that cannot be argued with, an energy that finds its way inside whoever touches them, sniffs them, feels their weight and texture, sets them down, goes back to merely looking. Iris, the maker of objects uses all of our senses to seduce us. If the story told by the guides at the Grange were written down on paper it could be torn up, and the objects sculpted and hidden would continue to speak.

The story put into words by the guides at the Grange is, however, neither written down nor uniform; it changes subtly from one guide to the next, evolving with every telling. It is alive, as is memory.

Iris’ art defies fixity, a singular point of view. When Mary O’Shea, the maid who hid in a pantry, possibly naked – so as not to muddy her clothes while digging a hole deep as her arm, in the soil beneath the brick floor, is stripped of her qualifications as real, when her existence is avowed to be false and her actuality collapses, a new story emerges from the rubble – the story of a German-born artist, an immigrant to Toronto, crouching in a pantry, possibly naked, digging in the ground determined to express what she cannot put into words and possibly does not even want to reveal.

Into the hole she’s dug, Iris Haeussler, the protagonist of our new story pours twelve litres of her liquid truth, and waits for it to solidify.

We all want something solid. When one story crumbles to reveal another, we are apt to feel disconcerted. Those who visit the Grange and are led to believe that Mary O’shea existed, are being intentionally deceived. Trust is not something to be trifled with. Is this work of art ethical? An abuse of trust, either prolonged or fleeting, is inherent to it’s unfolding, and yet what it has to say about how we construct truths is entirely true, and spoken from a place of honesty. Much can be said about the uses of deception in art, going back well beyond the discovery of perspective to Plato’s concept of memisis. Is “trompe l’oeil” an abuse of trust? Perhaps it is time we invented a term other than deception to describe the way art misleads us into experiences of truth.

He Named her Amber, suggests that many truths have an onion-like nature and can be peeled layer by layer, but when sliced open produce tears. What are we to do? Simon Weil advised: “a fixed point of view is the source of all injustice.”

The difficult art of Iris Haeussler asks us to forgo the false security of what appears certain, and to place our trust in what is most alive and changing. Only if we accept this challenge may we engage with the intricate deviance and fullness of the stories she spins. Not for nothing was Anansi – the Caribbean trickster who stole the world’s stories from the gods – a spider. Every story is a web. The Russian, early 20th century philosopher Lev Shestov wrote that anyone seeking truth, stands like a drunkard on ever shifting ground, and must be prepared to fall down repeatedly. He Named her Amber pulls the carpet out from under our feet. It is not an enjoyable feeling. On the other side of this disagreeable sensation of shock, betrayal, even humiliation, lies a potent story about the fabrication of history and memory, about the desire to hide and the need to express, as felt by a 21st century artist who has taken on the persona of an imaginary 19th century maid, possibly to point out the lowly, outsider status of many present day artists unwilling to bend to the dictates of fashion or the marketplace. But I’m inventing. Who’s to say what are the true motives of Iris Haeussler.

Trust – the challenge and dangers involved in the act of trusting, social isolation, immigration, the liquid role of story telling, the transformation of object into artifact, of object into work of art, the barriers between art and the everyday – these themes surface repeatedly in all of Iris’ work, as if yearning for resolution. In her Honest Threads project, Iris Haeussler has invited Torontonians to offer a piece of clothing dear to them, for exhibition and possible loan to a stranger. The borrower must give their credit card number, and is held accountable to the tune of $500.00 should the clothing on loan be damaged or not returned. But can a monetary value be attached to the running shoes that stopped your hip from hurting and led you to the bar in New York where you fell in love? (see item IH 030  ) Or to the blue jacket given to you by the woman who was hidden along with your mother during the Holocaust? (see third hanger from the back on the rack to your left)

Your involvement in Honest Threads is not about money. You have chosen to trust; you have accepted membership in a community of stories to be told in a welcoming room in which no one story is given greater value than any other.

The terms of this project are simple: whatever the value – emotional or monetary – of the footwear or clothing you’ve loaned, the fact is that when your shoes are returned to you, someone else’s sweaty feet will have worn them; an unfamiliar leg, more or less hairy than your own, will have slipped into your trousers; your jacket will have hung flatteringly from someone else’s perfect shoulders; and your hat will have perched on a head possibly full of offensive ideas. Or worse – your hat may have made a new friend, a friend it will now dream of while riding on your head. Are you ready for an open marriage with your garment? Can you cope, if your jacket becomes adulterous?

Red – the perfect colour for such intimate exchanges with strangers. I advanced through the familiar chaos of objects for sale at discount prices, glancing at the framed, discoloured photos of old movie stars nobody any longer remembers, and climbed the stairs to the second floor of Honest Ed’s, where shoppers were eagerly digging through mounds of anonymous, brand new jeans and sweatshirts, and I entered the red chamber. Weeks ago, I had handed over a short-sleeved shirt made of thick white cotton, worn by my father in Egypt, during the second world war, when he was a Canadian naval officer operating radar, on loan to the British.

The little story I’d given, to accompany the shirt, had been typed up, I saw, and was now hanging, exposed, in a frame on the red wall, as if it were my diploma, my license to practice. To practice what? Was I now to be defined by that little, incomplete story made authoritative by a standard black frame? How did my story rank among the other stories on display? Might I not be judged, even in this most inclusive and democratic of projects? I felt exposed.

“The clothes make the man.” “She left wearing only the shirt on her back.” “If the shoe fits, wear it.” How deep do the tentacles of definition reach when we pull on a garment?

The little typed up tale told how, as a teenager, I’d worn my father’s voluminous, enduring white shirt over my bathing suit at the cottage, to hide my imperfect body.

What it did not tell was how I’d hoped to know my father better by slipping his shirt over my head, how I’d longed for his shirt to divulge all he kept irretrievably hidden within him, for its cloth to envelope me in the man I imagined my father to have once been long before my birth; could his garment not lend its solidity to my vision of him?

I left the red room but returned. On my first two visits my attention was almost entirely taken up by the texts and photographs. With the actual clothes, I felt little connection; I did not make the effort to connect. On my third visit however, I found myself wondering why I was not more drawn to the garments. I stood in the red room and asked myself, which in fact spoke more potently: the stories removed from the clothing and exhibited as text, or the actual shirts and pants, hanging in apparent silence from the racks?

I lifted a pair of black cotton pants from their hanger and slid my finger through a discreet slit in their narrow waistband. I had my answer. Inside this tiny space the wearer of these pants once hid enough francs to pay a bribe, in Rwanda, just months before the genocide ignited. The text on the wall recounted the tragedy endured by the wearer of these pants, but it was not words that expressed the story most achingly; its almost unbearable humanity resided in the feel of the pants, in their rumpled fabric, in their ordinariness and in their surprising lack of weight as they hung from my hands.

Another garment caught my eye – a small, simple, women’s jacket made of raw silk – black, lined in mauve. I touched its sleeve, thinking how lovely it was and that I might try it on. I went over to the wall and read the garment’s story, as told by its owner, a journalist. She wore the jacket, she explained, to remind herself of the harrowing life of the Vietnamese seamstress who’d sewn it having at last escaped from the sex-trade, the profession into which she’d been sold as a girl. I returned the jacket to its place on the rack. Something in the wording of the story gave me the impression I was being told what to feel. The jacket itself spoke in a barely audible whisper, easily overwhelmed by the authority of the information offered in the text, and as I held the jacket’s sleeve I could feel only an absence of story.

I looked around the room, pondering what to borrow.

A photo just above the one of me in my father’s shirt, and a bit to the right – showed a man wearing a double-breasted, black jacket with two rows of large pale buttons down the front. It intrigued me. The story beneath the photo stated that the jacket was the work of a famous Tokyo designer, Yohji Yamamoto; it explained that the owner had once tried on, in his youth, a jacket in which he felt immediately comfortable, and later he’d wondered who had designed it but had not find out until he watched Wim Wenders’ film, Notebooks on Clothes and Cities, and heard Wenders declare that the first time he’d tried on a jacket designed by Yamamoto, he’d felt immediately, inexplicably at home in his skin. Soon after watching the film, Eric Woodley found and bought, in a Yorkville shop, the Yamamoto jacket now on exhibit.

I located garment IH 065 and slipped it on. I felt immediately at home, deeply comfortable in myself. The jacket reminded me of how, as a child exploring a closet, I’d come upon my father’s dark, imposing naval great coat, its two glimmering rows of brass buttons down the front, and its gold stripes around the sleeve, denoting rank. I wanted to try on the coat but was sternly instructed not to touch it; a uniform, I was told, spoke of discipline, of responsibilities and grave consequence and was not a toy. I grew up with discipline as my second skin. The Yamamoto jacket was both disciplined and sensuous, and I was allowed to wear it. Made of rich corduroy, perfectly cut, it hung in such a balanced way its considerable weight became light; it invited its wearer to feel both safe and free. Its beauty was renewing. I wore the extraordinary jacket out of Honest Ed’s and down the street to Queen Video to rent Notebooks on Clothes and Cities.

I don’t want to give back to Eric Woodley his Yohji Yamamoto jacket. In his picture, Mr. Woodley has a kind face. I must return to Eric Woodley, his jacket. It belongs to him. I feel bound to Mr. Woodley by the fact we are both in love with the same garment. I’m glad I entered the red room, and did so several times. I am especially glad I slipped my finger through the slit in the waistband of a pair of ordinary black, Rwandan trousers and felt their story in my hands – how thin the fabric that protects the man.