The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach - Comment by Mark Kingwell

The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach - Comment by Mark Kingwell

Mark Kingwell

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

As Iris mentioned, about a year ago I gave a mini-lecture as part of a panel discussion and suggested that in an age when everybody seems to be an artist of some kind or another, when outside is inside and inside is outside, that perhaps it was time to "disappear the artist". I didn't think that anyone would take me literally, this is the danger with throwing out theoretical bagatelles, that someone will say, yes, that is exactly what I want to do: the disappearing artist. Soon after that I heard from Iris and so I am one of the unlucky ones, I think, in that I knew from the start that the project was a fiction. But nevertheless, when I went to the house, and I am sure that those of you who have gone, as it were, inside the frame, have had an experience which is strangely moving anyway.

This is what I have been reflecting on: why is it possible, how is it possible, that one can be so profoundly affected by an experience which is structured knowingly as a fiction. It makes me think of two insights from aesthetic theory that I want to put on the table as suggestions for further discussion or reflection, one is from Martin Heidegger in "The Origin of the Work of Art", Heidegger says, the mere object is not the work of art. The mere object - he means of course the painting on the wall or the sculpture in the courtyard - the object is not the work; the work is something else. The work is an establishment of meaning, a declivity of meaning if you like, opened up by the object, as experienced. And the other insight is from the more contemporary philosopher Nelson Goodman, who said: the question is not what is art but when is art, and of course he meant, how is it possible for a urinal or a carpet or some banal household object to be a work of art. It is not merely a geographical displacement that makes that possibility, it is the experience under certain temporal conditions, that I experienced it in this moment, as art.

Both of those thoughts were on my mind as I tried to make sense of my experience of The Legacy. Neither of them goes far enough I think in understanding what Iris has accomplished with this work, and it really leads to the question: what is the work in this case. One of the important aspects of the experience of the house is the narrative and the artful unfolding of the narrative in little pieces, suggestive pieces. So that you see for example the figures with the rabbit ears and the transfigurations of the female figure into a rabbit headed figure before you learn anything about the potential slaughter of the rabbits. The back reading that goes on in that narrative, and then the seizing on the narrative, trying to make sense of the relationship between Joseph and the female companion, the very thing that gives rise to the nightmares ... And outside of that, now that the frame is broken, as the [National] Post in their unethical breaking of the embargo on the work; the headline on the remarkable front-page story was: "Reclusive Downtown Artist a Hoax", which is itself a mini narrative, it's a narrative in five words — "Reclusive Downtown Artist ..." — "Reclusive Artist" — "Reclusive Downtown Artist" — "... a Hoax" — and I have been trying, when I talk to people about the work to understand this notion that it is a hoax. It's certainly not a hoax in the sense that anything has been motivated by a deception with intention merely to deceive. I think of it instead in terms of irony; the kind of irony which is dedicated to the instability of meaning, so that we are as experiencers of the work constantly shifting the frame, inside and outside, going over - and back on the threshold. We knew, then we didn't know, we didn't know, then we knew, back and forth and back and forth. And as we do this, it seems to me the work expands.

What is the work? Is it the sculpture that is inside the house, is it the house as an installation, which in its technical terms is absolutely brilliant, the layering of detail, the material, the ephemera that has been banked up in the house? Is it the reception of the house, the experience of the house, is that the work? Is the work what happens when you find out that what you thought you experienced was something other than what you experienced? Is that the work? Or is it perhaps that this is all the work? That the work in fact is ever expanding, like ripples in a pool of water in which a pebble has been dropped.

Rhonda spoke about mediation, mediation in terms of the curatorial presence - the mock curatorial presence - that one is lead through the house. But I think of this in terms of - naturally, I guess for me - in terms of Kierkegaard's objection to Hegel, that there is no mediation, finally, that the work does not allow itself to be completely substantiated or taken on board, there is always something that lies outside. And I think even after tonight's discussion, and after hours of discussion, I know that many people in this room I have talked to already couldn't stop talking about this work with their friends. There will always be something in this work that will not be captured by our discourse, the work will go on and on ... And I think in this way what Iris has done is really given us a new kind of narrative, a narrative of art without closure, where the work doesn't ever end, and where, if you like we have almost a new category of art, the "haptic conceptual", where the experience is profoundly physical and moving, where you feel it in your body, and it is at the same time a conceptual piece, a piece which forces one to reflect on the nature of art, the nature of one's experience of art, and finally, maybe most deeply, the nature of one's selfhood. It is a remarkable achievement, not just in terms of its notoriety, its notoriety, I hope we would all agree is just the scratching at the surface, and beneath the surface there is more, and more, and more.

©  Mark Kingwell