Apartment 4 is the first in the Open House Project series, an ongoing Arts Center initiative providing a platform for emerging and underrepresented artists and art forms. Artists and organizations are invited to collaborate and experiment with new ideas and original content in exhibitions that use the galleries in the John Michael Kohler home as a place for artistic inquiry. The home, built in 1883, is a unique setting for the generation of new curatorial explorations of topics ranging from the familiar to the phenomenal.
Julie Niemi, assistant curator at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (JMKAC), sat down with Iris Häussler to discuss her artistic process, the importance of biography when bringing underrepresented histories to light, and the work behind the exhibition Apartment 4: Iris Häussler and The Chipstone Foundation.
Julie Niemi: In Tale of Two: Iris Häussler, your solo exhibition on view at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center during the spring of 2018, the accompanying handout stated that your research into the characters you create is a “tool to engage viewers into thinking about something that may have been in front of their eyes for years yet somehow out of sight.” This exhibition, Apartment 4, is centered around the life of a single woman immigrating to the United States in the late 1930s, which in its historical context was definitely against the grain. In what ways do you believe these details go unnoticed? And how can we proactively acknowledge underrepresented histories?
Iris Häussler: It appears to me that historic events are often seen as “having happened elsewhere.” In our daily lives, there is a perceived abstraction that these events occur, particularly in locations that are not in major metropolitan cities or areas. To break this cloud of abstraction and communicate these events, it takes a matter of pausing for a moment, make people turn to their parents or grandparents to ask questions we don’t typically ask of our families or loved ones. Sometimes, it takes an object, such as old photographs or memorabilia, to use to confront our loved ones with these things and ask that they tell a story. Through these stories, histories are heightened, documented through verbal or written language, and hopefully shared.
Julie Niemi: The story of Florence Hasard in Apartment 4 is about a woman who moved through various social circles in Paris and eventually landed in Milwaukee, interacting with the Layton School of Art. It’s also a story of survival. How a woman endured, and likely concealed her trauma as a nurse during WWI. On your behalf, I suspect this requires deep diving into biographies of women who you suspect lived similar lives to hers. How did you begin to sketch out Florence’s story? And what decisions do you make to create the material evidence of the people you write these visual biographies about and for?
Iris Häussler: I wish I could say I am a thorough researcher and adamant reader, but I am not. I think I draw artistically from my repertoire of creating, and emotionally I slip into my character’s shoes. I really take time to either lie down or go for a silent walk to imagine “a life.” This process always presents me with deep feelings I must confront and also lots of questions arise regarding the character’s place and time of living, their imagined social situation, family, relationships, economics, etcetera. I also wonder how and if outer constraints could have impacted personal choices. While I do this, I can’t help but start “falling in love” with the character, feeling I have to become her/his advocate. I give them a platform to be seen and loved in way that I imagine wasn’t possible for them to experience during their lifetime. I go to my studio and play around with different materials, putter around, clean up, and almost all of the time start creating in a childlike way. I like to just watch my hands make things, with “my character” in the back of my head.
At that point, it becomes a back and forth between studio and the computer, books, and interviewing people. As far as material decisions, I mostly choose everyday materials as a starting point. I like to have my character use them in just a slightly different way than they are normally used, experimenting, developing somehow their own way in using them.
Julie Niemi: It seems Apartment 4 and Tale of Two address larger themes surrounding a larger “authoritative” voice: who is granted the right to speak and why? The characters you develop live on through interpretation by curators, collaborators, and daily visitors to the museum. You release a lot of authorship to collaborators, which is so empowering to the people who work alongside and with you on these exhibition projects. What is an ideal interaction with one of your characters, in this case Florence Hasard?
Iris Häussler: History is told by the surviving. That’s why I ask myself and through my work with collaborators: What do we miss out on knowing? What is the victim’s story? The deceased person’s story? The silenced person’s story? The unarticulated person’s story? The mute person’s story? Whom have we not heard and why? How can we get a more faceted picture of the past (or present)? I fantasize about an audience who recognizes an object of Florence’s or an artwork she made. And it hopefully reminds them of something similar they might have encountered before.
For example, a tea tin from the 1920s. Someone might just think: “Oh wow, my grandmother had the same tea tin in her cupboard"—and going home, starts rummaging in their grandmother’s stuff. And then they maybe look up the tea company. And perhaps discovering history of colonization, leading from Britain to East Africa or Vietnam. And just learning so damn much just through looking at a tea tin. It might lead too far and ask too much, but perhaps that person now starts thinking of the lives of the tea pluckers in the 1920s. And further enough, perhaps next time in a store, imagines contemporary tea trade and contextualizing their role as a consumer.
Julie Niemi: Looking around Florence’s studio, one can gather a lot of information or assumptions about her character. There are articles of painted clothing, clotheslines full of hand-dyed fabrics, books, caldrons of beeswax, and anatomy books with pages earmarked and tracing paper intentionally overlaid on images of parts of the human body. There is such an intentional use of materials. One such example is the use of beeswax, which occurs in some of your previous works as well. Can you speak about some of the material decisions you make and, specifically, your usage of wax as one of the lovely messes housed in Florence's studio?
Iris Häussler: I prefer “non-art-materials” as a starting point. I like to imagine one of my characters just happens to have a lot of cardboard boxes available. And that as this simple material or object creatively leads to experimentation, the drive to create leads to an obsessive production. Almost, on their own, they become experts in one material use or another. I love beeswax because it’s a material many people could possibly have access to. It’s soft, pliable, and beautiful to work with; it is precious but not like gold. And unassumingly natural, it can be reused and reused. It is heavily associated with mummification, health, religion, nature, and culture. One can easily dissolve various powders, ashes, and pigments in it—it’s just an amazing material.
Julie Niemi: Looking closely at the painterly makeup of Florence's dresses—the wavy, shaky lines that swirl together—it feels as though she painted these as a coping mechanism, a form of art therapy and healing to work through her lingering trauma from the war. What is the role of healing in Florence's biography, specifically during her time in Milwaukee? How did the repetition of painting help to soothe her trauma and pain?
Iris Häussler: I imagine that repetitive movements like we find in many crafts techniques, or actions like counting the rosary, have a healing quality. They soothe the mind, they calm down a restless head spinning with memories, they occupy the body.
Florence had once been on the forefront of caring for wounded, traumatized, often dying young men when she worked at the military hospital #73 in France. During this time, she must have felt an utter helplessness, and probably also an emotional distance arising regarding her lover, Sophie La Rosiere, who lived a more privileged life not so closely exposed to the misery of war. So long story short idea: I think Florence went to the United States in the first place to escape the economic difficulties in Europe as well as to “forget” Sophie and, more importantly, to “forget” the war and the many men she had watched dying or being disabled. But as we know now, we can’t just leave a place behind and think that we also leave “our story” forever behind. Our stories are attached to us, and it takes very little to trigger those stories to the surface with all their emotions. Frankly, I don’t think it was a process of “healing” that took place, but only the attempt to self-heal.
Julie Niemi: When encountering the first few rooms of Apartment 4, there is an assortment of furniture and household items that were furnished by Florence’s landlord: well-worn chairs, early twentieth-century lamps, and a sewing area, for example. In Florence’s studio, a visitor encounters Florence’s artwork and books and, perhaps going deeper, her psychological interior space. Visitors are immersed in an artist’s studio space. Can you talk about some of Florence’s coveted possessions or discoveries she made through her art? And did she bring anything with her when she emigrated from France?
Iris Häussler: Hmm…This is a difficult one. Because it is a question of perception (by the visitor) rather than a treasure hunt initiated by the artist, I think. Meaningfulness will appear when the visitor finds an object that relates to their history, knowledge, or experience. Iris Häussler and her relation to the objects in situ don’t matter to me, as I think they don’t matter (and should not) to the audience.
Julie Niemi: Florence’s artwork, specifically the anatomical drawings and rag paintings, involve the act of pressing, imprinting, and copying. As quoted by Robert Michael Brain on your website: “Traditionally, the arts of copying had been enshrouded with an aura of magic or theological mystery.” Can you speak to Florence’s interest in repetition and copy?
Iris Häussler: For Florence, her practices, I introduced copying and imprinting as an act of “leaving a trace.” I see it as an emotional gesture of wanting to hold on to a human trace or an existence in reality. In my mind, Florence’s relationship to clothing is like to a “second skin.” Rather than fashion or aesthetic (all the things she needs to consider in her seamstress business), in her personal life they don’t matter. What matters is her perception of clothing as something in direct contact to her skin—something that “knows you best,” something that shelters, something that protects, something that warms, something that merges so tightly together with the real human skin that it shows the inner organs of a body when Florence turns it inside out, painting such on it in relentless stroking manner.
Julie Niemi: Can you give us your speculations on where Florence might have gone after her disappearance from Apartment 4? Have you made any recent discoveries?
Iris Häussler: Well, our colleagues in New York contacted me recently. It looks like they found a crate that might relate to Florence in her later years, after she disappeared from Milwaukee. That would be amazing, and I am curious. Research is in early stages so I am afraid I can’t share more.
This exhibition is supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts. Funding was also provided by the Chipstone Foundation, Kohler Trust for the Arts and Education, Kohler Foundation, Inc., and the Frederic Cornell Kohler Charitable Trust. The Arts Center thanks its many members for their support of exhibitions and programs through the year. The John Michael Kohler Arts Center is a 501(c)(3) (nonprofit) organization; donations are tax deductible.