Iris Haeussler (or German spelling 'Häussler') (German pronunciation: [ˈiːʁɪs ˈhɔʏslɐ]; born April 6. 1962) is a conceptual and installation art artist of German origin. She lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Many of Iris Haeussler's works are detailed, hyperrealistic installations that visitors can decode as narrative stories. Recurring topics in her work include historic, cultural and social origins, such as family ties and relationships, and physical conditions, such as geography architecture and housing.
Haeussler studied at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts under Heribert Sturm with a focus on sculpture and has shown widely throughout Europe before her move to Toronto in 2001. Recognition received include a scholarship of the German National Merit Foundation, the Karl-Hofer Prize of the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts and a Kunstfonds Fellowship. Besides for her immersive installations, Haeussler is also known for her sculptural work and drawings. With her installations, she creates "synthetic memories" by presenting the living situations of fictitious protagonists who have arranged their lives somewhere between obsession and art.
Haeussler was trained as a sculptor, but her work is not easily classified by method or genre: she has had solo-shows of sketches and drawings, large and small sculptures as well as participatory, interactive pieces. However her most notable works are large, immersive installations. Philosopher Mark Kingwell notes: "It is an example of what we might label haptic conceptual art: the art of ideas that functions by way of immersion, even ravishment."
Haeussler had a guest professorship at the Munich Academy in 1999. In Toronto she taught sketching and sculpture at the Toronto School of Art from 2005-2013. She has given talks about her work in Germany, Sweden, Australia, the Norwegian Arctic, the USA and Canada. In 2014 she mentored Sean Stewart and Fausta Facciponte for their master's degree at the Lesley University College of Art and Design in Boston, USA.
Early sculptural work and sketches
Students at a German academy of fine arts in the 1970s followed a loosely structured curriculum that emphasized studio work. There were few mandatory courses, rather an emphasis was placed on exploration and experiment, practice and critical discussion. Haeussler's experiments were influenced by artistic positions of Wilhelm Lehmbruck and Joseph Beuys; she herself names Medardo Rosso as her most important inspiration.
- Archivio (1991) was created within Milano's annual festival of the arts, Milano Poesia, curated by Gianni Sassi. Haeussler had begun work with wax, exploiting its translucency by encasing objects or documents, an act of protection and removal. "Archivio" was an exhibition of process, a performance in which she collected daily newspaper clippings for the duration of the MILANO POESIA festival, cast them into thin slabs of wax on-site, and ordered them into a large steel shelf. Visitors browsed through the slabs, rearranging them, breaking some; over the duration of the show the archive was transformed into a collection of disorder. Archivio was reinstalled a year later in Prague. The act of encasing objects in wax would remain a theme in her work to this date. Examples are stacks of wax-tablets that encase the laundry of children and adults, arranged into constellations of family relationships, or panels of gauze-curtains and dresses in which the fabrics' color and texture shimmers through the enclosing wax matrix; they appear as large, ethereal paintings.
Gallery- and interactive projects
Haeussler brings a subtle irony to many of her contributions in solo and group shows. Even where she uses established presentation forms, she challenges conventions with objects, materials and circumstances that would not normally be considered "art". However, her goal is not to confront her audience but to engage it; her work invites to participate in an exploration of the human condition. This discourse between artwork and viewer complements the positions of interactive art (responding to the participant) as well as relational art (focusing on inter-personal relationships).
- Paidi (1994), a gallery show at the Kunstraum, Munich, Germany contained more than 200 passport-size images of infants, taken between 1905 and the present, juxtaposed with 280 samples of mother's milk the artist had collected from nursing mothers. The installation explored how location, social conditions and history define biographies from day one.
- Huckepack (1995: Piggyback) was a hotel intervention in which Häussler installed the personal belongings of a traveling woman into a room of a downtown hotel in Leipzig, Germany. Germany. Guests were offered an upgrade into a larger room, if they agreed to share their space with a fictitious person. They were confronted with one of the beds being unmade and a silk-pyjama left on site, one of the towels having been used, an open suitcase with personal items on the dresser, all conspiring to create a virtual, yet tangible physical presence. Although the piece comes with a disclaimer - the guests realize that they are part of an artwork for a night - the intrusion is disorienting and sidesteps confrontation; in the words of curator Klaus Werner: "All attempts to unveil the mysterious stranger lead into autobiography."
- Leihgaben (1995: On Loan) presented laundries, pillowcases and bedsheets Haeussler collected from institutions - an orphanage, a hospital, a prison - to remove them for a short while from their cycles of use. "Acceptance and the appearance of a human dimension came [...] from an unexpected direction, when the bedridden inhabitant of a nursing home stated: I am proud to have my nightgown shown in an exhibition." - such engagement of participants through their unique biographies is characteristic of many of her works.
- Xenotope (1994, 1997, 1998, 2000) was a small series of projects that provided temporary overnight accommodation. The first Xenotop in Leipzig furnished a spartan room with bed, desk, TV, towels and bottled water, all painted in a uniform light-grey. Visitors registered at the gallery and received the key for one night, to be spent without further direction or observation. "The only cost is to absorb the emptiness." Variations of this theme were shown in Bonn, Munich and Friedrichshafen.
- Repla©e (1997) A piece of Institutional Critique - was a response to an invitation to a "Blind Date" with Maria Lindberg, by curators Susanne Gaensheimer and Maria Lind. Haeussler sent a non-artist substitute in her place, a scientist who filled the large studio at IASPIS at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts, Stockholm, with scientific and educational chalkboard drawings. The project generated controversy, "...because it was made suddenly obvious how tightly the acceptance of an artistic work is still bound to the guaranteed authorship of an artistic personality."
- Honest Threads (2009) was a boutique installation in one of Toronto's most idiosyncratic mega-stores: Honest Ed's Department Store, curated by Mona Filip of the Koffler Centre of the Arts. A lush, theatrically furnished show-room held row upon row of framed photographs and very personal stories relating to some piece of garment, contributed by Torontonians. Visitors were able to borrow the garments and wear them for a few days, experiencing both literally and psychologically what it is like to "walk in someone else’s shoes". This piece loosely built on an earlier project (Transition coat, Übergangsmantel/Płaszcz Przechodni), 1999), collaboration between Frankfurt (Oder), Germany, and Słubice, Poland, two cities on opposing banks of the Oder river.
- Sophie La Rosière (2016-2017) presented the life history of the fictitious French female artist of the early 20th Century. Chapter I, presented at the Art Gallery of York University in 2016, introduced La Rosière`s biography and presented a reconstruction of her studio. Chapter II, presented simultaneously at the Scrap Metal Gallery in Toronto, examined some of La Rosière's art works through X-ray analysis and presented video interviews with experts about the veracity and provenance of her work. Chapter III, presented early in 2017, showed many of the artifacts created by "La Rosière". The fictitious life of Sophie was tightly intertwined with real artists of the era such as Madeleine Smith. The exhibitions received extensive coverage.
Major off-site installations
"Synthetic Memories" is a tag Haeussler applies to her major installations; she sees "synthetic" as opposed to "analytic" in the artistic process of creating memory from research, ideas and studio-work. Often years in the making, they derive much of their credibility from painstaking attention to site-specific detail and hyper-realist staging. They are also invariably off-site works: especially her later installations have avoided to be labeled as "Artwork" - or even to be associated with the artist's name - as the first step to open the viewer for an unconventional dialogue.
- Ou Topos - Wien (1989), Her earliest apartment installation recreated the situation of an aged man in a turn-of-the-century social housing project in Vienna, Austria. Focus of the installation was the bedroom that had been filled with thousands of tin cans of food and preserves, stacked in crude, wooden shelves, each wrapped in thick lead-foil and labeled with their date of expiry. Visitor's explored the space on their own and unsupervised. "[The work] sensitizes for the circumstances of others, without trespassing on their intimacy or dignity. In order to create an authentic representation, [Haeussler] has lived in this apartment for half a year. She immersed herself deeply into this unfamiliar space, absorbed the odors of the house, listened to its sounds and adapted her routines to those of the other inhabitants. When the apartment was opened to visitors, fiction and reality appeared superimposed".
- Pro Polis (1993) was Haeussler's first hotel intervention, staged in a three-star Hotel near the Duomo in Milano, Italy. The walls, floor, window and all amenities of a guest room were covered with a thick layer of wax; the installation could be decoded as the activities of a stranded guest, a salesman in industrial materials perhaps, the room abandoned under obscure circumstances. Visitors obtained the key at the reception for an unsupervised experience of the space. With this work Haeussler "reverses the canon of sculpture, in the spirit of the revolutionary sculptor Medardo Rosso, [...as she ...] raises the question of overcoming its intrinsic limitations".
- Monopati (2000), featured two apartments in two separate cities - Munich and Berlin, Germany. These were transformed into different narratives, but remained connected through a single picture of a school class, taken in the late 1930s that could be seen in both apartments. Visitors were able to obtain the key to the apartments at nearby galleries (Galerie Huber-Goueffon in Munich, Wohnmaschine in Berlin) and proceed on their own into the installation.
- The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach (2006) was Iris Haeussler's first major work in North America and her largest and most complex installation at that time. Curated by Rhonda Corvese and widely reviewed and acclaimed nationally and internationally, this multilayered installation in an entire house in downtown Toronto recounts the life of an aged, reclusive artist, through the mediation of an on-site archivist (often Haeussler herself). Initially, the project was not publicized as an artwork but presented as an assessment by the fictitious "Municipal Archives". Haeussler intended to facilitate an unfiltered and unhindered experience of discovery. The subsequent disclosure sparked controversy on the ethics of engaging uninformed visitors in an often emotional encounter with a fictional narrative that is initially presented as fact. Canada's National Post ran the frontpage headline "Reclusive downtown artist a hoax" which prompted Mark Kingwell to deconstruct this "miniature narrative of outrage" and to clarify that the transformation from fact to fiction in the visitor's experience was indeed central to the work. Novelist Martha Baillie visited the assessment, trusting in the veracity of the presentation. She published an essay on her experience, noting that: "She'd had no right to lie to me", feeling anger and loss, yet finally conceding: "The Joseph Wagenbach I’d created in my mind, [...] nobody could take from me, not even Iris Haeussler. He was mine".
- The Joseph Wagenbach Foundation marks Haeussler’s long-term projects, resuming from her 2006 installation and expanding Wagenbach’s legacy into a fictitious foundation. Launched officially at the Villa Toronto in January 2015, it offers small edition bronzes of a number of his sculptures and a drawing edition to the public. While the foundation works on digitizing his drawing and sculpture archive, and planning on the dissemination of his work and life, Haeussler states: “the Joseph Wagenbach Foundation is a fictitious foundation of a fictitious artist, but his works are real.”
- He Named Her Amber (2008-2010) was an installation in The Grange, Toronto, curated by David Moos and commissioned by the Art Gallery of Ontario for the re-opening of the Frank Gehry Transformation. Haeussler had invented the character of a 19th-century immigrant servant who followed her habits and passions in secrecy for decades, and excavations conducted about 150 years later by the (also fictitious) company named Anthropological Services Ontario. Guided tours through the extensive site allowed viewing of the astounding findings of personal artifacts as if in a time-capsule embedded in beeswax. In 2012, the Art Gallery of Ontario published a book documenting the project with its complexities of a contemporary art project created, installed and narrated in a historic building, first not labelled as an artwork but as an “ongoing excavation” and the various and very controversial visitors responses. In November, 2011, the Art Gallery of Ontario published a book documenting the project.
- Invited for the 18th Biennale of Sydney, Haeussler developed a work on Cockatoo Island. It was titled He Dreamed Overtime (2012). The story of a former ranger about a lost love he never overcame resulted in his creation of strange beeswax objects that looked like corals of an alien sea, and provoked an investigation of a pest-control company. Ultimately, the company’s manager himself got so deeply fascinated by the case that he re-enacted the missing ranger’s work in parts, mixed it with his own interpretations and created a vibrant blog on his company’s web-site, illustrating his own psychological reconstruction of a world of human desire, sensuality and loss.
- Ou Topos - Abandoned Trailer Project, was commissioned for For Nuit Blanche Toronto, 2012. Haeussler revisited her very first apartment installation (OuTopos, - a Synthetic Memory) in Vienna in 1989, inventing a grandson to the original protagonist. This new character represented a social dropout, doing obsessive research into surviving environmental degradation due to toxic pollution, in particular nuclear fallout. Without being noticed by the authorities, he managed to install himself, his belongings and experimental lab-like trailer in an underground garage of the Toronto city-hall.
Haeussler’s major projects include the invention, corporate identity and accessibility of fictitious institutions or corporations that serve as investigators and presenters of the discoveries before they are identified and labelled as artworks to the public.
To this date, 4 of such can be named and 3 of them have an online presence: