The man who wasn't there
In just over a week, a film crew led by Peter Lynch will set up shop at 105 Robinson St. to begin recreating the history of an artist who it was reported owned the ramshackle two-storey house on the property – an artist who never existed.
But Lynch, the highly regarded Toronto documentary maker (Project Grizzly), has a sense more than one mystery will unravel before the film, tentatively titled The Archivist's Handbook, is completed next year.
"With things like this, you have to come to terms with your own demons," he says.
Joseph Wagenbach is the name of the fictional artist. Back on Aug.19, neighbours on Robinson St. discovered all manner of activity around the Wagenbach place, as its contents were being "catalogued" by the very official-sounding "Municipal Archives."
It seemed the owner, an aging German immigrant no one remembered seeing, left behind a considerable collection of artwork, mostly sculpture. Possibly some of it was valuable. Now in a nursing home, the story went, he could no longer take care of things.
Then, on Sept. 16, it was revealed everything connected to the shrub-hidden spot in this dozy back street just west of Bathurst St., was pure fantasy. "The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach" proved to be a site-specific art installation by Iris Häussler, a Toronto artist/teacher who some Robinson St. residents thought they remembered seeing. Wasn't she one of the archivists buzzing around the house in her white lab coat, they wondered, the elegant one with the black hair?
The director's production schedule is rather tight. In practical terms, Lynch needs to gets his cameras into 105 Robinson before Häussler's lease runs out and developers arrive to start dismantling the enormous volume of artifacts the artist collected from all over the city by driving around in her car just about every other night.
Following the Toronto shoot, the film crew visits Germany – the fictional Wagenbach's birthplace in 1929 – and Paris, where the artist's narrative has Wagenbach moving and marrying before arriving in Toronto in 1962. As the story goes, he "bought" his house in '67.
Reactions by people who visited 105 Robinson – now since closed to the public – tend to go to extremes. Many were deeply moved by it. But some hated being taken in by it all. One woman felt such outrage that she's since refused even to mention so much as the artist's name.
It was much the same for Lynch. He was viscerally shaken by the poignancy of Häussler's artfully artless environment, with its creepy rooms littered with detritus going back 30 years, and its dirty-looking waxen sculptures looking more like ash-flecked stalagmites rising up from the floor. The filmmaker thought he'd come across another remarkable outsider artist along the lines of Henry Darger, the late Chicago janitor whose imagery and visual worlds have become the subject of films, museum shows and books.
Lynch now realizes "an inseparable connection" exists between Wagenbach and Häussler. "There is a performance element to it all," he says. "You have to react to that. The art itself is a kind of residue, an artifact. This is not about any failed artist. He's more like a character in a movie by Martin Scorsese, who wants you understand the world (the character) moves through."
Häussler herself prefers to keep some distance from her fictional character – although their biographies are not dissimilar, both coming from large families in rural Germany. In order to make Wagenbach's rather awkward sculpture seem convincingly less like her own work, she attended nude study classes where she learned to sketch with her left hand while not using her right. She also watched the men around her as they studied the models, to get a better sense of the male gaze.
"Look at the phallic appearance of these pieces by him," she said proudly a while back, taking me around the house. "They're hollow. I would have never have done that." (Well, actually, she did – but as lusty old Wagenbach.)
However, The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach is in fact the latest in Häussler's series of "fictive legacies," where strangers are invited to share a room with a fictional individual. In Monopati (2000), she invited onlookers to visit an apartment in Berlin and another one in Munich with the promise of finding connections between the imaginary people living in each spot.
But Wagenbach proved to be different as Häussler felt she was growing perilously close to believing he existed – even as she created his universe. "I'd talk with the old guy while I was working here," she says.
"I'd say to him, `Come on, you can do it.' I found I was thinking he existed. Finally I needed to step back and say goodnight to it all. I had to go to Starbucks, get a coffee and calm down."
Indeed, the more Lynch looks at things through Wagenbach's eyes, the more he feels he's seeing things through Häussler's – that she is the outsider whose story he also wants to tell. "Iris comes from that generation (in Germany) that came after World War II," the director says. "There's something surrounding her story that's both menacing and siren-like. It's a precarious thing to take on."
Yet he thinks he understands the archivist role she created for herself. "A filmmaker has something in common with an archivist. They both take artifacts and hold them up for illumination."