The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach - Comment by Marcus Schubert

The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach - Comment by Marcus Schubert

Marcus Schubert

Statement for the panel discussion
Goethe-Institut Toronto, September 20 2006

It was about 1981 when I first met my own Joseph Wagenbach. While preparing for a photography trip overseas and waiting for the weather report, I noticed a television segment about a very curious place. I am not sure whether anyone in this room knows who Ferdinand Cheval is? Anyone?... raise your hands... a couple. Cheval was a postal worker, living in rural France, who worked for 33 years creating an astounding piece of architecture. Each day he would follow his letter mail route twice; once to deliver the mail and a second time with a wheelbarrow, to pick up curious objects and interesting rocks. Over time Cheval amassed a mountain of rubble in his back yard. Then, on one night, he had an extraordinary, lucid dream where he envisioned himself creating a fantastic monument. Working mainly at night by candlelight, the very next evening he began a thirty-three year project (96,000 hours), spending half his paycheque on concrete. Facteur Cheval (as he was known) created the Palais Idéal — an extraordinary two-story building that expressed something otherworldly and visionary. In fact this creation was: Cheval’s homage to all world architecture and philosophy, his own genius and his intended final resting place.

I decided I would have to visit this place, to see for myself. And while on that trip through Europe, the moment I first came upon on the Palais Idéal, I came to realize the dedication it takes to commit one's life to the realization of something ephemeral, so unlike what we are taught by culture. I immediately began to reconsider the value of my academic training as an artist, for in this masterwork there was no rhetoric, no need for or validation by fame, fortune or celebrity. This was a person simply obsessed by the act of creation. And the results were astounding. So I became really fascinated with this and began to look for more of this kind of manifestation and spent about fifteen years travelling through Europe and the United States mainly, rooting these people out, to find them wherever they had left something, photographing them if they were still alive or just what they made and left behind.

Subsequently, my experience of research, seeking-out and finding more places that embodied this extraordinary creative power became my modus operandi. As I got closer to each location, I became very anxious about what I was going to experience, especially if the person who was making the environment was still alive. Sometimes it was an exterior, sometimes it was an interior, sometimes both. But each time one had to redefine the rules, and rediscover a way to interpret what was being created. So, while walking through these places I had the feeling of being innocent — nothing is familiar, there are no recognizable patterns regarding what was occurring there. Essentially these were self-made worlds that are created for whatever reason in order to cope with, or in a sense discover something about, the creator’s own existence. The experience of going to these places and meeting these creative mavericks, either personally or through their artwork, was cathartic in terms of how I came to understand what "Art" means.

One of the important results of Iris' exploration in the Wagenbach Legacy, has to do with the effect upon a community. I think for a community it is vital to have the presence of "antennas" for metaphysical experience. The experience that such rogue creations engender also galvanizes the community within which they reside.

In many cases, when I would find an environment where someone was known to be working that had been discovered or a similar story, they were considered to be freakish and "out of their right mind" and they were first shunned by the community. The tolerance for this kind of personal extravagance is generally very low. Until the world began to show up to meet them and see the work. Suddenly, not only was there a celebrity living among them, but the community was also celebrated by association. Thereafter an incredible support happens; they are accepted and embraced as celebrities, folk-heroes within the fold of the community.

Because the Wagenbach house is only a block from where I live, I often walk or drive past. One of the interesting things that occurred over the course of this past month is that I began to notice the odd person standing outside. As days passed there would be more, and more "gatherings" out front — people waiting patiently, and discussing emphatically. Speaking with Iris I was made aware of the fact that one now had to make appointments, to wait up to two weeks to have a tour! Yesterday I saw [an assisstant archivist] riding his bike down to the house to do an extra "shift" because he said there were no less than thirty-five people standing outside and the daily hours for tours had to be extended.

So here, the same kind of thing had happened in rather short order, as with places that I have described previously. All of a sudden the community becomes unified in the experience of a creative wonder. And people begin to interact, speculating about what is going on, how great it is, or how disturbing it is.

What I admire about Iris' project, is that the research comes from within. I have had the opportunity to experience many such places and so know the "look" of authenticity. The detail to which she has executed this particular work is technically high, the quality of what she brings off is extraordinarily convincing. So I can imagine, because I have that memory of going to original places, what must be going through someone's mind as they see Wagenbach’s Legacy. It's a very disturbing moment, not an easy thing to comprehend where the motivations for these creative acts are born. What one instinctually does is become a detective. Looking at these moments, on the walls, the floor, on the windows — the newspapers from 1975 - the viewer attempts to make sense of all this material.

Everybody looks at a different set of elements and therefore constructs a slightly different idea of what is going on. However, there is a pervading general atmosphere and this atmosphere tells the story of an intense involvement with existence, with a personal narrative that is ultimately expressed as solitary experience, for the sheer need of being.

For an art-seeking audience, the power of this type of work is rare. Going through museums and galleries, I am often struck by the brevity of time and attention given to an individual piece of art. Some say that it is anywhere from ten seconds to a minute, and then off to the next object. The quality of attention span is limited, not being challenged, in my estimation because much of art participates in familiarity; "...oh yes, that looks like a Brueghel," or, "...isn't that an interesting contemporary take on De Chirico..." How often does one engage with a work of art for an hour and still be willing to contemplate its import afterwards? When is the narrative - the performance - so convincing, that one begins to ask, "why am I here? Why do I have privileged access to this place? This person isn't dead, and why all of a sudden does the city open a private residence up?" "What has transpired here?" These thoughts infect the storyline, and we realize that through this work, Iris Haeussler has cunningly implicated our own imagination to co-construct the universe of Joseph Wagenbach. It seems to me a valuable investigation—to give the audience an opportunity to be innocent once again, to invite them to engage hotly with the content of art. I applaud the artist for her deeply moving insight to the human condition, and for her long-term commitment in developing her legacy projects.

©  Marcus Schubert


• John MacGregor reviews Marcus Schubert Raw Vision #21, Winter 1997

• Marcus Schubert reviews Albino Carreira Raw Vision #25, Winter 1998

• Marcus Schubert curates Treasures of the Soul AVAM, 2000