The Legacies of Joseph Wagenbach

The Legacies of Joseph Wagenbach
NO -
Mark Kingwell

[En anglais]

What is a hoax? A gag, a goof, a blindfold; a spoof, a jape, a deceit; deliberate equivocation, fakery, impersonation, infiltration. Pretending what is not the case. The triumph of appearance over reality. A joke that functions by way of deception.

The English word hoax has a suitably cloudy etymology. It is, authorities aver, probably a contraction of ‘hocus’, as in ‘hocus pocus’—the traditional utterance, as any child could inform you, of witches over their infernal cauldrons. A spell, a trick, a magical confusion. Probably. But hocus pocus itself traces a necromantic origin, for it is—probably—a corruption of the priestly Latin pronounced over the bread, rendering it into flesh, hoc est corpus meum. Re-enacting the drama of the Last Supper, the priest quotes Christ: Here is my body. With the corruption, the words, which perform the holy Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, are mocked as magic.

The body of Joseph Wagenbach, by contrast, was never found. Visitors to the house he was thought to inhabit saw every trace of him, from clothing and food to the very depressions his form would have made in couch and bed—not to mention the stacks of drawings and jumbles of sculpture. But his body was absent, removed, they were told, to a local nursing home when his neighbours finally noticed the old man was even less visible than usual in the surrounding streets. We can investigate the corpus of his work only because his flesh has been removed.

As a work of art, Iris Häussler’s “The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach” joins a lineage of hoaxes that surely includes everything from elaborate fakes and impersonations to the infiltrated ready-mades favoured by that mutt Duchamp. Though “The Legacy” alludes to them, it is not really concerned with issues of authenticity or uniqueness—standard preoccupations of the art world skewered by some hoaxes. There is no concern here for the visual puzzles of representation tricks of trompe l’oeil, nor even with the now familiar gesture of puncturing the art world itself, in its institutional forms, as a collective delusion of corporate approval. Offering a layered experience of engagement, disillusion, and confusion, it goes well beyond these, and sets up a work—a network, I want to say—of meaning whose reality lies neither in the house nor in the fiction. It is an example of what we might label haptic conceptual art: the art of ideas that functions by way of immersion, even ravishment.

Immersion was essential to the work. Visitors to the house, located on a quiet residential street in Toronto, were greeted by an archival agent, dressed in white lab coat, who issues warnings and latex gloves. They were made to sign a release form. Entry was by way of a narrative frame in the form of the ‘field office’, which had been hastily constructed to include reassuring objects of investigative authority: the office coffee-maker, a fire extinguisher, notices and signs of warning. The exterior sign, in an inspired touch, was a sly modification of the City of Toronto municipal logo, rendering its usual form, a graphic representation of architect Viljo Revell’s famous City Hall design, instead as an open book: one of many incidental jokes within the main frame of the work.

The house itself had been elaborately and meticulously filled with ephemera, not just art works. Drawers were stuffed with old matchbooks and takeout menus. culled from garage sales and basements. Out of print books and obsolete hygiene products crowded the shelves and tabletops. The small house was jammed, stacked, piled, entirely claustrophobic. The final stop on the standard tour involved climbing a small ladder and placing one’s head in an enclosure that allowed a view of the top of one large sculpture that dominated the living room—an obscure homage to Brancusi from Iris Häussler, via her creation Joseph.1 The archival agent, sometimes the artist herself and sometimes various associates, took visitors through the house while unfolding a narrative of mystery and disappearance.2 The artist who never was, Joseph, was reconstructed in a post facto psychic autopsy. Details and hints were highlighted: the recurrence of a certain female form in the sketches, the rabbit ears that would indicate a subsequent obsession, the tiny pencil mark on an ordnance survey map that indicates the location of the German concentration camp Bergen Belsen.

The main intention of “The Legacy” was never mere deception. Nevertheless, many people were taken with (or taken in by) the narrative contained by the house. The will to believe is strong, and small doubts were frequently squelched by visitors when faced with the overwhelming facticity of the work: the physical presence of all that material, not limited to the works themselves, plus the sense of sadness that pervaded the poky little house and its bizarre dirty rooms. Some visitors claimed to guess that the work involved a fiction, but this was hard to verify.3Certainly by the time the work had been available to visit for some weeks, many people were wondering how to bring Joseph’s work into the ‘official’ art world, how to comfort him at his nursing home, even to send music or flowers.

The artist had planned a formal reveal of the work’s frame but she was anticipated, against an embargo, by an article that appeared in the National Post on September 12, 2006, with the headline “Reclusive downtown artist a hoax.” This breach of the embargo deprived the newspaper’s own readers, among others, of the chance to experience the work in full—not to mention bolstering a sense among journalists that they need not take artists’ wishes seriously. When I called this action ‘unethical’ (though perfectly legal since embargoes are not binding), one newspaper writer sent me a hostile email demanding to know why this ‘bullshitting’ art project was worth respecting in the first place. Where are the ethical obligations in fooling your audience?

It is a valid question. The answer, it seems to me, is that the project is a sustained, unnerving, and moving meditation on the importance of art, and of life, which can only achieve its ends by means of the basic deception plus the reveal—like magic, only more so, hocus pocus with punch. Or, if you like, a mystery story with the ending retroactively conferring sense on what has gone before. The philosopher Harry Frankfurt has famously defined bullshit as a lack of regard for the norm of truth. The bullshitter is not deceptive; he does not care, one way or the other, whether what he says is true. In this sense, “The Legacy” is, if anything, the antithesis of bullshit: its deception is in the service of truth, since the reveal allows for, indeed forces, a confrontation with the power of deception. Some visitors were amused, some shocked or even outraged, by the revelation, but all were united in finding the experience compelling. Why had they been taken in? What did it mean to forge an attitude or a relation to someone gone, only to find that he had never been there in the first place?

In “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Heidegger notes that “the mere object is not the work of art.” What is the work of art in Iris Häussler’s “The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach.” I suggest it is not the house, still less the contents thereof: the ‘works’ of the ‘artist’ Wagenbach. It is not even the experience of visiting the house. It is, rather, the entire field of meaning opened up by the installation plus the reveal.

That field can be surveyed along the following five vectors, which I can do no more than sketch:

Narrative. The story of the reclusive melancholy artist was fetching to visitors, not least because it conformed to an available norm. Further, it heightened a sense of the anonymity of the urban, especially in a city like Toronto with its layerings of immigration and polyglot districts. How many millions of complex stories lurk behind the doors of our neighbours?

The National Post story, meanwhile, which ran on page one, was itself a miniature narrative of outrage. How often does installation art constitute front-page news in a national newspaper? Only when it involves a hoax, the story carrying an implicit journalistic judgment that this is just the sort of tomfoolery we might expect from the jape-happy modern art world. The hint is offered that all modern art partakes, to greater or lesser degree, in a confidence game. The very phrase ‘reclusive downtown artist’ is a condensed narrative of exposure—a ‘recluse’ is not known to be a ‘downtown artist’ unless and until discovered, his reclusion made known as a matter of righteous interest. That was one reason why the newspaper, to save its self-image, had to break the story first rather than cooperate with the intentions of the work.

Narrative and its conventions are thus embedded in the work at many levels: the narrative of Joseph’s life, the narrative of our tour through that life’s detritus, the narrative of our experience that the mystery of his absence not only has been solved, but was, in a sense, never a mystery at all.

Archiving. The frame was, importantly, established by the fiction of the archive: establish an artist’s legacy by picking over and cataloguing his works. The joke at the heart of “The Legacy” is a wry commentary on this archival impulse: to rescue the unknown artist by sorting the jumble of his life into secure categories of sense—the jumble having been created for just that purpose!

The insight is crystallized in the old-fashioned cardboard tags that were tied to each piece of sculpture. A rubber stamp had been applied to them, reading “Municipal Archives - Legacy Assessment Joseph Wagenbach.” The stamped image included a rendering of Joseph’s signature and a line fronted by the phrase “Testified by _______.” These were already, like the assessment office, a clue in the form of a joke: archivists do not use such tags anymore, nor are they likely to use a phrase like “legacy assessment.” The tags are thus a kind of kitsch. Even more, the rubber-stamped version of the ‘artist’ signature had, of course, been fashioned by the artist Iris Häussler (writing left-handed). Her scrawl was then added, in the character of the archivist assessing the legacy, in ink on the blank line below, ‘testifying’ to the authenticity of the works assessed—all of which had been created by her. Assessment, testimony, authenticity, all collapsed under the sign, the trace, of the signature, both the work of one person and both ‘false’, but at different levels of the work.4

Mediation. The art world is always a function of mediations, through-puts and frames of interpretation. Likewise the world established by the archival impulse. Both forms of mediation are investigated here, sometimes mocked or deconstructed. This art world is outside the usual walls—it has its own walls—but nevertheless, perhaps because of that, offers a rich meditation on art and its worlds. It refuses, finally, the Hegelian completeness effect of mediation, whereby by all tensions are eventually resolved by the absoluteness of the idea, insisting instead on remainders and unassimilated pieces. The legacy of Joseph Wagenbach is unstable, in part because fictional, but “The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach” takes this instability, which it has itself created, as a starting point, not a conclusion. Or rather, it folds beginning and ending together. The work begins anew with each visitor, each tour, each moment of the reveal.

Time. And so time, too, is part of the legacy. The work lingers, and does so in part because of its method of temporal excavation. The archivists, working in the present, are trying to reconstruct the past of the man’s life, even as the ‘artist’ is apparently trying, in his work, to confront and maybe work through events from his own past. The three timelines are intertwined by the work, deliberately warped together and collapsed. And the effect does not stop as we exit the frame, since the largest part of the work’s effect is still to come: the moment, in some near future, when we find out that this experience has not been what it seemed to be.

Threshold. The final layer of meaning of the work was constituted, or excavated, by the line and between the work and the world, between the experience and its aftermath. We crossed the threshold of the house and so entered the frame, were immersed in the world of the absent, fictional creator. But the frame was broken by the reveal, forcing an awareness of how frames of meaning are always presupposed. After the reveal we are, as it were, suspended on both sides of the threshold, inside and out at once.5

Taken together, “The Legacy” thus offered visitors a way of dwelling in thought for a sustained, indeed recurring, period. Again and again, they would recall the first impressions of the house; then the moment they learned it was a framed fiction. What to do with the feelings associated with the first experience when placed under the sign of the second? Iris Häussler’s work radiates its significance ever outward. It is conceptual art—art not just of ideas, but art about the idea of art—but it functions only because of the viscerality of its experience. In this final sense it is, to use Hegel’s phrase but shorn of the dialectical arrogance, “the sensuous presentation of the idea.”

Nelson Goodman, noting the open-ended nature of the post-Duchamp, post-Warhol art world, where anything may be a work of art, said that the important question was no longer ‘what is art?’ but instead ‘when is art?’ At what point does a soup can or urinal shift, in its meaning, from mundane piece of equipment to object of our rapt attention. It is not merely when they enter the gallery or museum, as some suppose. The multiple legacies of “The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach” demonstrate this, offering a work entirely outside institutional boundaries a work that continues to resonate over time, expanding its meanings.

The fact of its fiction is essential to that effect. “The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach” is therefore a hoax, of an elaborate kind, but only as long as we recall the magic transformations, the transfigurations of the world and ourselves, effected by the incantatory power of hocus pocus. Not bread into flesh, perhaps, but memory into meaning—and vice versa.

Mark Kingwell ( is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto and a contributing editor of Harper?s Magazine. His recent writing on art includes catalogue essays for the painters David Bierk and James Lahey and the photographers Edward Burtynsky and Geoffrey James. His articles on architecture and design have appeared in, among others, Harper?s, the Harvard Design Magazine, the New York Times, Canadian Art, Azure, and Queen’s Quarterly.


1. One impulse for the work was a feeling on the part of the artist that the work she was producing seemed to be in a form unrelated to her own training. “When I got to the studio and worked in sculpture and drawing I noticed that the out-coming pieces relate to Art Brut,” she has written. “But I am not an Art Brut artist. I can’t be, because I got the education that disqualifies me. The consciousness and frustration sits in this corner.” (Private correspondence, 14 February 2007.) The frame of Joseph Wagenbach’s legacy gave her a kind of masked licence, to create as she wished. At the same time, these works were not exactly hers, since she created them under the sign of his (imagined) identity. Like any vivid fictional character, he becomes more real in her imagination as time goes on. The same can be said for those who visited the house: Joseph Wagenbach is a man they will never forget.
2. Iris Häussler told me it was a talk I had given on “Disappearing the Artist” in 2005 that prompted her to get in touch with me about “The Legacy.” As a consequence, I was not able to visit the house except under conditions of prior knowledge, obliterating the opportunity to experience the work fully.
3. As someone experiencing the house from outside the frame, I noted a certain lack of plausibility in the very perfection of detail that makes the work so technically remarkable. It is unlikely that someone would, for example, have so many different matchbooks from businesses that disappeared at exactly the moment Joseph decided to become reclusive. But this feature, ostensibly a flaw, was neatly folded back into the work. Häussler notes: “After a while I included into the tours a sentence like: ‘Often we think during our archiving process that we find something hintful, just to discover in the next moment that it is probably an item Joseph had collected at a garage-sale or found in the garbage and is not a personal private object’.” (Private correspondence, 14 February 2007.)
4. I asked the artist for one of these tags, which is the single artifact from the overall artwork that captures all elements of the ideas it deploys. The house, meanwhile, remained untouched, if no longer visited, as late as the spring of 2007. A documentary film, directed by Anthony Gratl, will assess the work, while a fictional film based on the reception, The Archivist’s Handbook, is planned by director Peter Lynch (The Herd, Arrowhead, Project Grizzly, etc.).
5. I dwell further on thresholds and meaning as a function of liminality in a series of three articles published under the general title “Crossing the Threshold: Towards a Philosophy of the Interior”; see Queen’s Quarterly, Spring 2006, pp. 91-104; Summer 2006, pp. 275-89; and Fall 2006, pp. 443-59. This material in turn forms chapters 7 and 8 of a forthcoming study, Concrete Reveries: Place, Consciousness, and the City (Viking, 2008).