Joseph Wagenbach

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Joseph Wagenbach is a fictitious character created by German-Canadian visual artist Iris Haeussler. The original idea was conceived in 1999 as "Haus des Künstlers" (house of the artist) while the artist still lived in Europe. After her move to Canada, Haeussler began work on the actual production of the project, developing her character's biography and his psychological state of mind and then stepped into Wagenbach's shoes to create his oeuvre of over 100 sculptures and some few hundred sketches from the late period of his life. The house in which Wagenbach's work was installed was opened to the public for tours for several months in 2006, both before and after it was revealed Wagenbach was a fictional character.


In summer 2006, a house was rented in downtown Toronto where the Wagenbach project was staged. Haeussler filled the house with furnishings, the ordinary detritus of an eccentric recluse's day-to-day life, several workshops and [1] more than 100 sculptures,[2] and uncounted drawings.[1] Rhonda Corvese provided curatorial assistance to Haeussler.[3] A fictitious institution called the "Municipal Archives" was established, ostensibly to assess the old man's legacy after he became incapacitated.[4] The Municipal Archives organized guided tours through the house where visitors could not only see the chaotic accumulation of artworks but also get a glimpse into his daily life. The performative part of the installation – interactive tours by trained archivists – included such details as having visitors sign liability waivers and wear lab coats and gloves before entering the house.[4][5] If the tour groups were small enough and sufficient time available, visitors were encouraged to open drawers and engage in conversations with the guides. These tours included viewing an old map of Germany where Wagenbach had marked his birthplace with an ‘X’ in pencil. As this village is only about 3 miles away from Bergen Belsen, a concentration camp during WWII, it was speculated that he might have witnessed cruelties there as a teenager or perhaps he had known an acquaintance or family member having been involved in guarding the camp, and that experience might have impacted his psyche and could have fueled his hermit habits and his art.[4][6]

Public and media response[edit]

Public reaction was largely positive, although not without controversy. Initially, the press reported the discovery of the Wagenbach house as literal fact. After the true nature of the project was revealed — first by an article in Toronto's National Post newspaper on 12 September 2006,[5][7] next in a presentation at Toronto's Goethe Institute on 20 September,[3][8] then at the Wagenbach house site itself as of 15 November 2006[3] — some media outlets expressed outrage when it was revealed that the whole project was a fiction.[1][6][9][10] Some members of the public who had visited the installation were also upset to learn that Joseph Wagenbach had never existed.[10]

In other media[edit]

On 20 September 2006, a panel discussion accompanied by an exhibition of some of the pieces from the Wagenbach house was held at the Goethe Institute in Toronto.[3][8] In 2007, a documentary film crew headed by Peter Lynch visited the Toronto house, collecting on-site- footage for his planned movie “The Archivists Handbook”. [10] In 2009, SPECS journal of art and culture, a journal of art criticism, published a survey of fictional-persona art projects which featured the Wagenbach house.[11]


  1. ^ a b c Baillie, Martha (Summer 2007). "An Encounter with Joseph Wagenbach". Brick Magazine. Retrieved 14 September 2015. (see Brick Summer 2007 issue Table of Contents Archived 2015-09-08 at the Wayback Machine)
  2. ^ Aldarondo, Cecilia (July 2009). "Hidden in Plain Sight: Iris Häussler's 'He Named her Amber'" (PDF). Art Papers. 33 (4): 35. ISSN 0278-1441. Retrieved 14 September 2015. Häussler rented a small house, filled it with furniture and over a hundred sculptures, and attributed it all to a fictional character, a German émigré who had lived reclusively in the house until suffering a stroke.
  3. ^ a b c d Dick, Terence (16 September 2006). "Portrait of the artist as a young fake". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 14 September 2015.
  4. ^ a b c Medicus, Thomas (24 July 2007). "Iris Häussler erregt in Kanada mit 'The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach'". Die Welt. Retrieved 14 September 2015.
  5. ^ a b Kingwell, Mark (31 January 2011). "The Legacies of Joseph Wagenbach". Retrieved 14 September 2015.
  6. ^ a b Whyte, Murray (16 September 2006). "Homage to a man's faux life". Toronto Star. Retrieved 14 September 2015.(subscription required)
  7. ^ George-Cosh, David (12 September 2006). "Reclusive downtown artist a hoax". National Post. Archived from the original on 24 September 2015. Retrieved 14 September 2015.
  8. ^ a b Harris, Amy Lavender (18 September 2006). "The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach". Imagining Toronto (blog). Retrieved 14 September 2015.
  9. ^ Grell, S.A. (12 September 2006). "Does the artist's story affect the art?". National Post. Archived from the original on 24 September 2015. Retrieved 14 September 2015.
  10. ^ a b c Goddard, Peter (17 March 2007). "The man who wasn't there". Toronto Star. Retrieved 14 September 2015.
  11. ^ Kjellman-Chapin, M. (2009). "Fake Identity, Real Work: Authenticity, Autofiction, and Outsider Art" (PDF). SPECS Journal of Art and Culture. 2 (1): 151–6. Retrieved 14 September 2015.

External links[edit]

See also[edit]

Conceptual art
Installation art
Fictive art