Beautiful deceptions: With the Sophie La Rosiere Project, artist Iris Haussler owns up
By Murray Whyte. Toronto Star, Sat., Oct. 8, 2016
The Sophie La Rosière Project started with a remarkable discovery: A single painting, wrapped and bound tight in canvas and twine, tucked in the basement of Villa Vassilieff, a stately French manor on the outskirts of Paris that hosts an international residency program for artists.
By all appearances, it had been kept there for decades, holding a secret its maker seemed determined not to tell. But as Iris Haussler began to unravel its mystery, Sophie La Rosière, who died in 1948, revealed herself in layers: Of thickly painting images of decaying flowers, painted one on top of the other in a desperate attempt to bury the ache of forbidden love and a broken heart; and finally, a thick, obscuring coat of blackened wax, surrendering all she was, and all she had done, to obscurity.
Of course, not a word of it this is true, but for a single name plucked from the tale: Iris Haussler.
Those familiar with Haussler’s works will no doubt experience an “a-ha” moment. In 2006, Haussler concocted the Joseph Wagenbach house, a modest worker’s cottage in the Trinity Bellwoods neighbourhood that held inside a tangle of wax-coated horrors — the obsessive works of Wagenbach, visitors were told, an elderly German immigrant and potential Holocaust survivor who had been found addled and wandering by neighbours, who had him committed to hospital.
Then in 2008, Haussler was given a much bigger stage: The Art Gallery of Ontario, in the midst of its renovation, where Haussler installed “discoveries” in the sub-basement of the Grange mansion — tiny sculptures, the product of an Irish immigrant maid who embedded herself in the walls as a silent act of self-declaration.
Both ruses were carried off without a hitch. Wagenbach went on for months, agog visitors being told by lab-coated “technicians” that the house was being assessed for cultural value before the truth was revealed. At the AGO, Haussler’s maid, Mary O’Shea, was exposed by a handout visitors could take with them to read, or not. For those who didn’t, and there were no doubt many, Mary O’Shea remains as real to them as they are to themselves.
The projects created a sensation, but left Haussler a victim of a unique kind of fame that kept her, as the artist, in the shadows. Wagenbach and O’Shea enjoy a kind of iconic status in the city’s cultural fabric; Haussler less so, predicated on the necessary invisibility her compellingly unique work demands.
From the start, Haussler said, Sophie was meant to be different. “Well, it’s my name on the wall,” said Haussler bluntly, and with a laugh. It was the day of the opening of part one of The Sophie La Rosière Project, at the Art Gallery of York University, and Haussler was preparing a tour of the exhibition for a group of volunteers who would unspool the tale for visitors.
“I do something completely unnecessary,” Haussler begins, as the volunteers form a circle around her. “I invent people. I tunnel into their lives and they start telling me their dreams, their fears, their obsessions. Then I can make for them a home, full of the things they made.”
As a perplexed hush fell over the group, Philip Monk, the gallery’s director, stepped in, explaining both the Haussler M.O. and how it would remain intact.
“We’re creating a fiction,” he said, “but we’re not telling anyone. We’re saying, openly, that Sophie La Rosière was a real artist who lived in secret, but through this process she’s been discovered, and we’ve gone to the tremendous labour and expense to bring that studio here and reconstruct it.”
So why, then, am I telling you all this and spoiling the party? Maybe it’s because Haussler doesn’t see it that way herself.
“Oh, I could have kicked him,” she giggles shortly afterward. Haussler is equal parts impish and intense. “This is a work by me — I’m comfortable with that being known.” She pauses. “I want that to be known.”
Haussler builds whole worlds that cross into reality, but it has rarely been clear on which side of the divide she herself stands. Sophie, for her, is finally an act of self-declaration.
“Ultimately, I’m a conceptual artist,” she says. “And because this is a contemporary art project, it can’t just be historical and romantic. It has to relate to here and now.”
Haussler brings Sophie abruptly into the present in part two of the project, hosted by Scrap Metal, a downtown gallery where Sophie’s blackened works are dissected by a panel of experts, both physically and psychologically.
Here, too, fiction bleeds into reality: Haussler and her collaborator, the curator Catherine Sicot, had Sophie’s paintings X-rayed by real conservators at the Louvre, and engaged such French experts as Gerard Audinet, the director of the Victor Hugo Museum in Paris, to expound on the significance of Sophie’s oeuvre.
It’s an elaborate deception, but Haussler allows some deliberate cracks. At York, Sophie’s studio, a dusty old relic of a French country house that she inherited, is sliced neatly in two by the gallery’s white walls.
Behind it, 18 vitrines are stuffed with Sophie’s sketchbooks and possessions. Just beyond them in a darkened room, their veracity dissolves in a video. In it, Haussler scours flea markets in France for the objects presented here as La Rosière relics.
During the tour, a volunteer stands amid the vitrines, amazed. “It’s just so believable,” she says.
Haussler stops, then claps her hands. “Listen!” she says to the volunteers. “This is the most important thing: All of this has to be so believable that I believe it myself. That’s the feeling that delivers the point: That a suspension of disbelief is allowed, and is possible.”
Haussler has made a career of giving that permission without asking. “What I want is for people to feel first, and trust those feelings before filtering it through their intellect,” she says.
Sophie, of course, is a little different, but finally with the artists’ overriding question more explicitly posed.
“When you step outside, it’s like a book that you close, and your practicality and logic can take over,” she says. “But really, it’s about memory: Is memory something that we own, or does it own us? And if we own it, can we make the history we want to believe in, that gives us a feeling of identity?” For Haussler, who has created enough characters and memories that her own often blur within them, the answer seems clear.
Iris Haussler: The Sophie La Rosière Project continues at the Art Gallery of York University, 8 Accolade East Building, York University, 4700 Keele St., to Dec. 11; and at Scrap Metal Gallery, 11 Dublin St. E., until Dec. 17. For more information see http://sophielarosiere.org/