Work Reviewed
Review date
Globe & Mail
Sarah Milroy

You need to know that this story is designed to confound you. It's a story that may or may not be true. Believe me. Or don't believe me. It's up to you.

It's the kind of tale that must be told just so: as a candlelit bedtime story by Borges, a thriller penned by Nabokov, a mysterious narrative with a hole at the core, stuffed with a deer bone and a braid of human hair.

There. Do I have your full attention? Now, you must do as I tell you. You must go to the Grange.

Yes, the Grange: that fusty, ivy-clad, colonial genuflection of a house appended to the southern flank of the Art Gallery of Ontario, that architectural full curtsey, in bricks and mortar, to the dream of British gentility transplanted to the swampy fens and gorse thickets of Tkaronto (which translates, from Mohawk, as "the place where there are trees standing in the water," named for its fishing weirs), that house impregnated with the DNA of one of Ontario's crustiest founding families (the Boultons and their kin), that tiny acorn from which has fluoresced the Dundas and McCaul nexus of the new Toronto art scene. It is a place hovered over (at least principally) by Toronto's fine ladies of a certain age, some of them no doubt descended from those ladies of 19th-century Ontario's elite, ladies who ordered up murderous raccoon pies for dinner and sent away to England for their linens. Go to that place.

And when you do, you will find some strangeness there. Tours are being offered throughout the day, and that is a bit surprising - odd even, when you think of it - given that the Grange is, well, a bit deranged of late. Yes. The Grange has been deranged, excavated, its plaster and lathe rudely stripped (here and there), its foundations breached, its secrets despoiled, by visitors from Anthropological Services Ontario.

They are searching, it seems, for the hidden handiwork of one Irish servant girl from Kilkenny by the name of Mary O'Shea, who came to Canada, settling at the Grange in 1828 and staying until 1857, her family lost to the famine across the sea. A tour guide told me this story and I had no reason to disbelieve it.

There was a butler named Henry Whyte. He made a map of the house, which was bequeathed, with a cache of his other papers, to the gallery last year. It was a revelation, a map sprinkled with little Xs, each one (it was discovered) denoting a secret hoard of tiny, and some not-so-tiny, beeswax objects, apparently made and then hidden by Mary.

Henry watched her, and he recorded her hiding places, nicknaming her "Amber." Amber: a material arising from the compression of resins, not unlike beeswax. Amber: a colour associated with energy, with Zoroastrianism, and the exercise of caution in traffic.

This woman had her intrigues: gathering infants' toenail clippings and balling them up in wax, creating little nests of secreted cinnamon, sugar, locks of hair, scraps of cloth, animal bones, milk teeth, tiny dolls, the skull of a rabbit, digging holes in the earth and pouring in wax, leaving for us, in wax, the impression of her fingers clawing at the soil.

A scientist named Dr. Chantal Lee is working there - we were shown her office - a woman of Korean/Swiss extraction, and she is retracing Mary's steps and reimagining her world, researching her ties to Celtic mysticism and Druidic ritual. What was Mary up to? Did she know she was being watched? It's enough to keep you up at night, blinking at the darkness. Dr. Lee's sleeping bag can be found spread out behind a bookcase in her basement office. It seems she has become completely obsessed.

Of course, obsession is nothing new in the world of art, a realm to which the Grange is affixed as if umbilically. Mary O'Shea would have liked the work of the German artist Joseph Beuys, with his interest in shamanism and mystical energy and the ritual power that abides in such materials as wax, copper, lead. The feminist art pioneers of four decades past - those women like Marina Abramovic and Carolee Schneemann - they also were a witchy crew, given to invocations of the Old Religion and to howling at the moon. She could be their sister.

And one need only wander from the Grange to the front galleries of the new museum to see the ivory medieval miniatures and German boxwood carvings, collected by the late Kenneth Thomson, to know the full fervour of the hoarder, for whom enough can never be enough. Hoarding: the compulsion to defy death, to control, to shore up that which threatens to unravel and escape into oblivion. These two might have understood each other well - master and servant - had their eyes met over a plate of steaming parsnips, she leaning demurely to offer him a second helping.

It is a strange tale, the only like of which is to be found in the memory of another artist turned feral: the late Joseph Wagenbach, the intriguing confection of a Toronto artist named Iris Haussler, for eight years now a resident of this city come from Munich. Two years ago, Haussler made a madhouse crammed with papier-mâché sculptures by Wagenbach - a man who never was, an imaginary German expatriate adrift from Old Europe, nesting quietly in a tiny house on a downtown side street.

Who would have believed such a thing? Some people called it a hoax, but they missed the point. It was an enchantment.