He Named Her Amber - Curator's Statement by David Moos
Art is at its most effective and scientific when expressed with a question mark... Everyone finds their own point of entry - there is no one solution.
- Joseph Beuys
Context in the Art Gallery of Ontario
In 2004 at the beginning of Transformation AGO, the name given to the Art Gallery of Ontario's recently completed Frank Gehry-designed expansion project, the goal was articulated to deliver not merely new architecture, but a new way of experiencing art. "New Art, New Building New Ideas, New Future" was the aspiration of the Transformation.
Throughout the installations of the permanent collection this goal is apparent. It is especially manifest with contemporary art. While the AGO's collection is installed on the newly built fourth and fifth levels of the contemporary art tower, additional works by leading contemporary artists are present throughout the entire AGO. Specially commissioned works by Toronto artists Shary Boyle and Tim Whiten serve to animate galleries of historical European art. Similarly works by leading American artists Willie Cole and Kara Walker punctuate other galleries of European art, referencing an African and African American heritage. The placement of these contemporary works disrupts the conventional historical narratives of art history, allowing visitors to engage traditional art through new contemporary frames of reference.
The contemporary art department maintained the aspiration to display works of considerable scale and ambition in an effort to convey to viewers how the scope of contemporary art had flourished since the early-1990s. Today it is commonplace that leading contemporary artists undertake installations that assume an architectural dimension. Specially sited works by Canadian artist David Altmejd and Italian sculptor Giuseppe Penone activate signal architectural parts of the new AGO, transforming space through an aesthetic experience.
Iris Haeussler, a Toronto-based artist whose work (like many Toronto artists) is equal to better recognized international artists, was invited to make a proposal for an art work in the new AGO. In summer 2007 she proposed an elaborate narrative work titled He Named her Amber, to be located in the historic Grange house. Among the most ambitious commissions for the Transformation, this work contributes a unique layer of experience to the encounter with art in the new AGO.
He Named her Amber
The questioning of truth - which in the era of postmodernism has been revealed as contingent and relative - is fundamental to Haeussler's approach. Her work aims to bring the viewer into a state of psychic participation where the wonder of the art work ignites a new, possible truth that becomes powerful, for many people absolutely riveting, because they are able to contribute to and even embellish this narrative.
Notions of truth, credibility and believability are central to our cultural moment. In Haeussler's work the artist and the art museum collaborate to enhance the veracity of a proposed narrative, which despite its feasibility, is fraught with curious, even suspicious elements. In one of the display cases in the upstairs examination room, a string of beads is arranged in such a way that its coils spell out the letters A R T. Is it really plausible that there would be a secret basement room, concealed for all these years, in which Amber maintained her "wax globule" workshop? Would Dr. Chantal Lee really be sleeping in her Grange office on a cot, camping out in a sleeping bag?
When one reflects upon such details which have the aura of a stage set, it does indeed seem uncanny that the narrative can become so convincing, blossoming vividly in the imagination. It is, however, precisely this process of self-questioning and assessing that is at the core of Haeussler's project as artist. And through overcoming one's skepticism and participating in the possibilities of the work - engaging the prospect that Amber is a kind of proto-feminist artist operating within the constraints of a historical era - one embarks on a creative path, moving from the realm of the possible into the domain of the real. Creating this new reality is akin to the artist's own process. The potency of the installation is that it allows for visitors to partake in the creative process.
A philosophical and art historical context for He Named her Amber
The work of art has its true being in the fact that it becomes an experience changing the person experiencing it.
- Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 1960
Haeussler's work may be fruitfully understood in relation to the writings of German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer. In his book Truth and Method (1960) Gadamer asserts that truth cannot be adequately explained by scientific method. The art experience may be considered in terms similar to empirical science, for like the sciences, art ultimately is understood through language. Gadamer considers the work of art not as a fixed, inert object but as a product that emerges from a process of perception, the engaged dialogue between the work of art and the subjectivity of the spectator. For him, experiencing an artwork necessitates viewer involvement which can generate intense aesthetic consciousness. Interpretation of this interaction becomes the cornerstone of understanding and this process should be considered no less cogent than scientific findings.
Aesthetic consciousness is what Haeussler seeks in her art. The immediate after-effect of He Named Her Amber - the spell of wonder that descends on visitors as they contemplate the possibility - is the crescendo of the art experience, which continues to resonate afterward. To preserve this spell of wonder, Haeussler's prefers to reveal that the experience is a work of art only after the fact.
Haeussler's work significantly differs from other contemporary artist's work whose installations seek to engulf the viewer in a transformative experience (in Gadamer's words, "an experience changing the person experiencing it.") Projects by contemporary artists such as Gregor Schneider, Mike Nelson and Nick Mangan offer valid points of reference. German artist Gregor Schneider (b. 1969) has been engaged with Haus ur (1985-ongoing), an undertaking which he began when he was 16 years old and which continues today. He dismantles and re-creates rooms from the house in which he lives, and has lived in for many years. These rooms are remade and embellished, becoming templates of intensive personal and metaphorical experience. Viewers encounter these rooms in exhibition spaces such as museums, entering into transposed domestic chambers that have an aura of the recent past, often summoning the claustrophobic specter of repression and dissolution that characterized Eastern Europe prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. British artist Mike Nelson's (b. 1967) disorienting fictional labyrinth of rooms, interiors and constructed spaces which he titled A Psychic Vacuum (2007), was installed in a vast market in lower Manhattan. Viewers entered the market and stepped into another realm where they became witnesses to recently vacated rooms that had the veracity of highly crafted stage sets, enticing viewers to become entangled in the infinite possibilities of the spaces. And Australian-born, Berlin-based artist Nick Mangan (b. 1979) fabricated a faux excavation site in New Mexico alluding to archaeological sites set up to recover Native American history. "I am interested in utilizing the notion of an excavation, physically - with a shovel - as a way of gathering information about a town's local history and myths; as a way of sieving through some of the facts and fictions, upturning some of the mud." In all of these projects the viewer is pressed to determine where the divisions between art and reality should be drawn.
Haeussler's installation participates in this genre, but departs through the use of a guide to deliver the narrative and respond to visitors' questions and comments. This theatrical dimension, which takes place within the frame of an art museum, creates the impression of plausibility. Haeussler deliberately crafted the role of the guide to recall the role of volunteers who had previously provided information about the Grange house, which until recently was presented as a historic home from the mid-nineteenth century. At times some volunteers wore period costume to enhance the authenticity of the historical fiction, and the pleasant aroma of traditional bread baking in the kitchen provided an additional olfactory prompt.
Haeussler's art work should be experienced more than once, in the manner of listening to a musical composition repeatedly in order to plumb its complexity. The revelation that the Grange experience is an elaborate work by a contemporary artist offers a new perspective, drawing the visitor into a new and different participatory role. The work has many layers and cannot be easily consumed. It demands a new level of engagement from all viewers.
Renowned German artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) serves as a powerful creative model for Haeussler who has derived both formal and thematic insight from the seminal artist who was engaged with myth, fables, symbols and self-fabrication. Beuys - whose aim was to share art with as many people as possible - noted that "Art is at its most effective and scientific when expressed with a question mark... Everyone finds their own point of entry - there is no one solution." Beuys worked across a broad range of media in order to convey his artistic intention, serving as a teacher, performer, sculptor, installation artist and ecological pioneer. Irrespective of his chosen means, which spanned from intimately scaled, delicate drawings to city-transforming environmental enterprises, Beuys endeavored to impart the sophistication of art's insight to the public, allowing and encouraging multiple "points of entry."
While Haeussler may not share in Beuys's democratic vision of dissemination, her work aspires to deliver to the viewer an unfiltered intense involvement with art. The key question is not whether her excavation is true or false, rooted in verifiable historical fact or based on fabricated narratives, but is rather to assess the intensity of a resonant art experience. Unfolding through the time of the guided tour, with the enhancement of language and dialogue, He Named Her Amber comes to life as the boundary lines between history and the present, architecture and artifice, art and the everyday begin to merge. The experience itself yields a kind of knowledge, a self-questioning that is intimate, even private in terms of how one understands this encounter, which for lack of a better term, one may call art.
David Moos, January 2009
Curator, Contemporary Art, The Art Gallery of Ontario