Review date
Globe & Mail
Terence Dick

There's a small crowd gathered outside the tiny, unassuming bungalow at 105 Robinson St., just east of Trinity Bellwoods Park. The sign in front reads Municipal Archives: Assessment Unit, and the visitors leaving the house are either talking excitedly or shaking their heads or just plain speechless.

Kyo Maclear, a local writer, says the experience has moved her to tears. Dave Clark, a musician who lives in the neighbourhood, says, "He must have known what he was doing. He's really an artist." One visitor says she can't find the words to explain. Her friend concurs. "I need some time to process this," he says, then blurts out, "The disturbing thing is the sack hanging from the meat hook in the kitchen."

The story that emerges sounds suspiciously close to the discovery of Henry Darger, a hospital janitor who left a lifetime of surreal, disturbing paintings in his tiny Chicago apartment after his death. The sole resident of 105 Robinson St., an elderly man named Joseph Wagenbach, suffered a stroke in June and is currently convalescing in a nearby nursing home. He either refuses to or is unable to communicate.

Toronto's Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee called the city archives department to assess his home after they discovered a mind-boggling maze of concrete and plaster sculptures, biomorphic towers, mummified animals, children's toys and cast body parts built into and through its walls. It's the hidden creation of a man so reclusive that nobody in the neighbourhood remembers him.

Or at least that's what the home's "head archivist," Iris Haussler, a woman in a lab coat, tells me.

The truth is Joseph Wagenbach was born two years ago in a car heading out of Toronto on a day trip. He's a fictional character created after some musing between the German-born artist Ms. Haussler and her travelling companion, curator Rhonda Corvese.

"Artists are always sequestered in this sanctioned hall that's difficult to access," Ms. Corvese says. By taking art out of the gallery and not telling people that it is art -- by letting them discover it -- she says, "we thought we could break the boundary between the public and the art world."

So this summer, Ms. Haussler and Ms. Corvese rented a house -- they told the landlord, city council candidate Fred Dominelli, they were using it for an art project -- and began filling it with the fictional Mr. Wagenbach's possessions. They announced The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach in August with a cryptic e-mail to colleagues: the address, and the message, "I think you might be interested in this."

Those who came -- including curious neighbours -- were met by a team of "researchers" to make the illusion complete. Soon, people were lining up to discover Mr. Wagenbach's art.

Ms. Haussler has exhibited similar fictitious homes throughout Europe since the late eighties. But Mr. Wagenbach is the first artist she has invented.

To create his life's work, Ms. Haussler channelled Mr. Wagenbach's spirit for more than a year. "My partner would hear me having a conversation when I was alone in the studio," she says. "The neighbour's daughter thought I was having an affair with a man called Joseph because I was always going to his house and assisting him."

The finished product, Ms. Haussler says, is really the oeuvre of another artist. "The work you see in the house Iris Haussler would have never done. She would be embarrassed to be associated with this. She just would not do that. Joseph does this work and she just assisted him."

The response to the project from visitors has been effusive. After touring the house, one local filmmaker announced that he wanted to start immediately on a documentary about Mr. Wagenbach. Even after Ms. Haussler broke the news to him, he didn't get it right away. "He's not alive? You mean, he died?"

Ms. Haussler will officially out herself this Wednesday at a panel discussion in conjunction with the opening of an exhibition about the project at the Goethe-Institut Toronto. But she'll keep up the charade at the house until Nov. 15.

Of course, since Ms. Haussler first brought Joseph Wagenbach into the world, she hasn't been able to keep his secret entirely.

Those who threatened to draw too much attention to the project -- including journalists, curators and a neighbour who wanted to raise money to preserve the house -- were sent an e-mail from Ms. Haussler admitting to the ruse with one request: Don't ruin the surprise for others.

Some people, however, just figure it out on their own.

Coming out of the bungalow, photographer Vid Ingelevics is impressed. "It's a wonderful piece of theatre. It's really amazing."

But he wasn't fooled. "I work a lot with archives and these people are way too relaxed. Real archivists are extremely secretive. They would never have a sign out front."