It's a given that any review is going to hand the reader a pair of expectacles to wear when sallying forth to view the object in question with their own eyes. It's a rare thing to come across an object where that taint could make a significant difference in the experience—but so help me, the stodgy old Grange has gone and done it. And so, I am honour-bound to provide the following disclaimer. If you are the kind of person for whom the absolute best part of presents is guessing what's inside; if knowing about your surprise party ahead of time gets you down; if spoilers make you want to kick the messenger in the head, don't let me ruin this one for you. Here's the deal. The Grange has an archaeological dig on temporary hiatus, and they're giving tours. If that sounds interesting, and you're one of the above-described kinds of people, tours are about every 30 minutes and you get there through the AGO (it's free after 6:30 pm every Wednesday). Go on, check it out, and don't say I didn't warn you not to read past the end of this paragraph, come back later. I leave it up to your discretion to continue, or end here.
The tour begins in the entrance hall. At the foot of a sweeping circular staircase, a tour guide tells the story of how a box of documents, pertaining to the estate, landed on The Grange's doorstep. Among these documents were found the detailed Pantry Books of Henry Whyte (the butler who served the Boulton family in the 1840s and 50s) and a strange sketched map of the house, with certain places marked, like a treasure map. In his Pantry logs, Whyte describes the odd behaviour of one maid, a young Irish immigrant named Mary O'Shea, who he observed illicitly collecting candle wax, and hiding mysterious objects in the architecture of the house. Anthropological Services Ontario was brought in, and under Dr. Chantal Lee, the excavations began. The tour moves through the house, from excavation site to site as the story unfolds.
Many of those marked spots on the map denote the hiding places for some very curious objects: balls and bricks and plugs of wax and clay, fairly crude, moulded mostly by hand, and containing objects and substances that invoke homesickness (a bundle of letters, a flower from Ireland), and folklore and witchcraft (a child's tooth, a rabbit skull, flakes of human blood...). A wide selection of these artefacts are displayed in a laboratory set-up in the Library, and in glass cases, labelled like museum pieces, all tentatively attributed to "Amber" (Whyte's code-name for O'Shea). The grand finale of the tour is in a small secret chamber in the basement: O'Shea's plastered-up work room, hidden until Dr. Lee began knocking on walls and measuring floorboards for mysterious draughts. The tours are participatory, and visitors are encouraged to chime in with observations of their own. Afterward, visitors are handed a small leaflet and encouraged by the guide to contact Dr. Lee should they have any comments, questions or insights into, perhaps, heretofore undocumented folk practices.
It's enough to switch any third grader's career goal from astronaut to archaeologist in a blink. It's also a lie.
The leaflet is titled "Excavation Notes 03/2009" but the message is a meandering, soft-footed letter of disclosure, signed "Iris Häussler." Häussler is the non-fictitious, contemporary artist behind this whole elaborate theatre of an art installation. Its official title is "He Named Her Amber." The only clue during the tour that all may not be as it seems rests in the Library, in an out-of-the-way display case of 1850s-period items: three rosaries are draped so as to spell "A R T."
Born in Germany, Häussler studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. She has lived and worked in Toronto since 2001. In 2006 she gained local Torontonian recognition with "The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach." I had the pleasure of hearing Häussler talk about "Amber," her working methods and inspirations, back in November when she visited York University. Tall, thin and intense, Häussler never does anything by halves.
"I am not a set maker, I have to feel things, know their structure, I want to bite into things." Her interest includes, to the point of obsession, the whole of some thing, not only its surface. Though embedded in a fiction, her creations are physically real through and through. All of the artefacts in "He Named Her Amber" are true to their placards in all but age and parentage. All their odd contents are all exactly as described. With 700 lbs of Manitoba beeswax in her studio and weeks as a social recluse, Häussler went into character as Mary O'Shea. "You feel you are betraying history by using an electric heating pot" she laughs, but apart from the twenty-first century transport from studio to the AGO, that heating pot is about all the anachronism she allowed. There is a shamanistic aspect to Häussler's work, like a novelist channeling various characters, but instead of into words, it is into her movements, into her physical creations.
In fact, she describes "He Named Her Amber" as a novel in three dimensions. This description invokes up the matter of "willing suspension of disbelief." With a novel, suspension is always willing; with "He Called Her Amber," the only will is that of the artist, and subservient to that, the curator, and the tour-guide actor. In short, belief is tied up with the dynamics of authority. In some respects, this feeds into a sensitive interaction with the space, yet in other respects becomes a breach of public trust that isn't neutral or kind.
"He Named Her Amber" investigates the myth of The 1817 Grange as Toronto's oldest house. When Häussler prospected The Grange for "Amber," she was surprised to find drywall. Further surprise came in the form of slides documenting the gutting and re-modelling of the entire building's interiors during the 1970s to better fit the idea of an "historical" 1840s manor house. It was then that the Bolton family's square-cornered staircase was replaced with a sweeping, free-standing steel structure deemed to be more historically "accurate." All but a few furniture items are "period," not from the original house, the basement kitchen floor is new wood over a concrete slab... and yet, the Grange has a history of presenting itself, without disclosure, as Toronto's oldest house, with actors in costume giving tours and baking bread for visitors. There are no records of the servants prior to 1857, and after all the house has been through, the practical likelihood of anything like O'Shea's creations surviving is so slim as to be ridiculous. What Häussler does with the house is reach through those promotional myths to dig fingers into the very clay the house stands on.
"He Named Her Amber" has a clear goal to provoke challenges to authority. By tricking visitors, Häussler underlines the trust they placed in the curator and administrators of The Grange, in A.S.O.'s appearance of professionalism, and in the tour-guides. This comes, at least in part, from Häussler's own cultural background in Germany: "with my parents and grandparents, I have to challenge authorities—it's just part of my inner task."
However, she approaches this task from the position of an authority, and so any resulting challenge is, in part, to her own authority. She distanced herself from the work by sending the woman who plays Dr. Lee to the opening, and her name did not appear on the list of artists commissioned by the new AGO — the effect is only to solidify Häussler's control of the situation. The power dynamic is rigged, and the audience is subjected to a bait and switch.
There is a fundamental difference between experiencing this artwork with or without prior knowledge of its fiction. To those who have prior knowledge, the presentation may not be very convincing, for the key issues are contemporary art issues of direction, redirection, directness of experience and site-specificity. The idea is that the visitors find some more direct engagement with the art because they do not know it is art.
For those who do not have that prior knowledge, the core issue is of deceit — for above all else, the installation deceives the uninitiated. There is no "more direct" experience, only different frames. To approach "He Named Her Amber" as contemporary art is to see it after the illusions have been stripped away. To approach it as an archaeological presentation is to be "had," to be the butt of a prank. A very smart and elaborate prank, but a prank nonetheless.
This is not to say that it can't be fun to be tricked. I myself did not mind it. Nevertheless, I know a great many are not so pleased, and I think their experiences should not be dismissed out of hand under the umbrella of "they didn't understand" (as is to often a tendency of art officials, alas). In fact, I think it would be quite contrary to the intent of the piece to do so.
The buzz of getting caught up in this mysterious story does not come without a cost. Glee may be killed by disappointment, and "He Named Her Amber" is a set up for disappointment. Häussler sets her audience up for a fall and as much as I adore the installation, as much as it has been some of the most interesting art I've seen in years, and as much as I enjoyed being tricked, I am not certain that it is dignified, respectful or right. I am not certain that this glorified prank is not, in fact, unjustifiably cruel.
In spite of all my reservations, I'd give "He Named Her Amber'" a big high-five if it had hands. The craftsmanship is exquisite, the story is captivating, and I highly recommend taking a tour as a piece of truly excellent site-specific theatre.
The exhibit is slated to be open until April 26, 2010.