In Search of Sophie

As the viewer experiences the storytelling of Toronto-based artist Iris Häussler, one immerses into her character’s worldview. Conceived in 2009, Häussler’s heteronym—Sophie La Rosière—might serve as a catalyst for all of those to be implicated in the overall quest to find Sophie’s home, if not provenance. As one becomes acquainted with Sophie’s milieu as situated in a suburb of Paris (Nogent-sur-Marne) during the early twentieth century, this seven-year journey culminates in three exhibitions, this fall at the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU) and Scrap Metal Gallery and in the coming year at Daniel Faria Gallery. I sat down with Häussler and Catherine Sicot (project curator) to discuss their collaboration. I also reflect on my graduate work, which focuses on ‘memory and place’ as represented in contemporary art, to further consider the questions that not only surround the viewer’s pre-conceived notions of the exhibition experience, but also pertain to the evolution of the Sophie La Rosière Project.


William Brereton: First and foremost, Iris, how did you and Sophie ‘meet’ in 2009? In other words, what precipitated your journey to find her ‘home’?

Iris Häussler: I could imagine that you mean, “how in general do I get to my characters, right?”

Brereton: Indeed.

Iris Häussler: It often starts in the studio. There are no goals in mind as I allow things to appear in front of my eyes, looking closely and being completely alone. These are very rare moments during this moment of contemplation, without the aim to finding the product, to have the blessing to be visited by ideas.

Brereton: As you originally trained as a sculptor, I am intrigued that you have chosen painting as the medium for Sophie. Was there particular inspiration that encouraged you to incorporate it as the principle medium for this project? I do not know if ‘comfort zone’ is the right word, but…

Häussler: It is true, though. I have ventured out of my comfort zone. I felt absurdly awkward without having any training in painting, but I felt the lust and adventure to go into this world to create this artwork. I signed up for an Oils Fundamental course at a continuing education school. I learned the bare essentials and took it from there.

Brereton: Interesting. If possible, are you able to describe the earliest moments when the notion of Sophie came to mind?

Häussler: An image of another came to mind. It led me to the idea of a woman who faced economic, social, generational, and geographical restraints. The question came to mind: is there a way to overcome that? I am interested in the notion that creativity is stronger than fear.

Brereton: I love then that the notion of overcoming is thus a characteristic that you and Sophie have in common.

Häussler: Each of my characters have a core that stems from my biography. However, I always strive in my conceptual practice for my characters to go beyond the personal and the intimate. It is crucial for research to strengthen the flesh of these biographies and build our empathy with these characters.

Brereton: Speaking of research, Catherine, when did you appear as a curator and collaborator in the project?

Catherine Sicot: In early 2013, Iris mentioned to me about this project and that she created the material evidence, elements of a biography for a new character and so forth. I was just starting Elegoa Cultural Productions and as I am French, and lived and worked in Paris many years, she asked me if I would be interested in researching historical elements and cultural partners in France as a means to build more flesh on the skeleton of the biography of Sophie La Rosière and to develop the project there.

Brereton: If possible, could either of you briefly describe the various processes—and challenges that arose—to arrange Iris’ research at institutions in Paris?

Sicot: We first met with as many as 15 curators, both historical and contemporary. It was a conscious statement on our side to present the project with an old-fashioned portfolio of Sophie’s drawings and paintings, and we discovered that the tension between the historical and the contemporary arose as a slight discomfort. With the historical curators, we were most interested to discover how they would date these works, and then how they would imagine the works would be situated within the art scene of that time. Another quest was to find Sophie’s home, somewhere in the surroundings of Paris. Initially, I was deeply interested in Aubervilliers, one reason was the re-development there due to the establishment of a large university campus–that would make the discovery of Sophie’s home very possible. We were also looking for cultural partners to develop the project there.

Brereton: During that extensive process, had either of you considered that the research would be presented in Toronto?

Sicot: Two years later [2015], we recognized the paradox: several curators and other professionals in various disciplines were involved in the project, Sophie had a home and history in France between Nogent-sur-Marne and Montparnasse, but there was not an exhibition plan for the Sophie La Rosière Project—in France or elsewhere.

Brereton: I find it fascinating that these exhibitions in Toronto were not the intended outcome of the initial research. I appreciate that afterthought is not the right word, but it is remarkable how the story departs from its origins and enters into contemporary gallery spaces in Toronto.

Sicot: With Philip [Monk] at the AGYU and Rui [Mateus Amaral] at Scrap Metal interested in the project (and of course Daniel at Daniel Faria Gallery, Iris’ dealer in Toronto), it then became an interesting approach, to give the project shape in white-cube contexts in Toronto for what was originally thought to be a “site specific project” in France. This lead to many new experimentations for both Iris and me.

Brereton: Iris, contrary to some your past projects that were exhibited in historical buildings, what might be the strongest motivation for Sophie to be exhibited in the white cube?

Häussler: Never underestimate the viewer; people are amazing. To have the project in a white cube, this will be the first project where my viewers can choose to suspend disbelief, but it is voluntary. As the title clearly states my name, there should not be any confusion. The prior projects were seductive, convincing viewers that they were discovering something new to only later learn that they actually encountered an art project. As for the white cube, it will look as though one had opened a book.

Brereton: In Losing Site, Shelley Hornstein writes that, in reference to your prior projects such as He Named Her Amber and Honest Threads, we, as viewers, are encouraged to incorporate our own memories as we search for a sense of place within your installations. How are you able to ensure that we ‘visit’ Paris, even if it is a reconstitution of the studio, let alone the past?

Häussler: I do not have to do a whole lot. For many viewers, as soon as you say the word “Paris,” they will immediately think about the clichés, perhaps their own personal memories. As Paris at that time was an important cultural center, a place where the world travelled, all I have to do is ‘trigger’ the viewer’s imagination. There is certainly no need to place a photo of the Eiffel Tower! The word alone immediately connects with the viewer’s imagination.

Brereton: In terms of Sophie’s oeuvre, why have you chosen to blacken the paintings just before the AGYU/Scrap Metal exhibitions?

Häussler: Sophie blackened the paintings! Again, going into the project, the character lends me her skills, her energy, and so forth. I could never paint as well as Sophie.

Brereton: There is the notion that ‘the character becomes the actor,’ after all.

Häussler: Exactly. Thank you.

Brereton: I should clarify that I asked the question because there might be a longing for us to understand Sophie’s state of mind as suggested by her work.

Häussler: There are many triggers that might have caused Sophie to blacken these paintings with wax. However, she preserves these works while hiding them. They will look unassuming underneath, and theoretically, the encaustic could melt and the viewer will discover the truth. If the viewer wishes to learn more, a video with two psychoanalysts will appear at Scrap Metal which will discuss more about Sophie’s decision.

Brereton: As I further reflect on the notion of memory as represented in the exhibition, the latter could be argued as a ‘site of memory’ For example, Pierre Nora noted in an essay that “we speak so much of memory because there is so little of it left.”[Pierre Nora, “Between Memory and History: Le Lieux de Memoire.” Representations 26 (1989), 7.] Would you argue that the incorporation of fiction, as a potential methodology for art history, can create a more cohesive dialogue between memory and history?

Häussler: I would not say that fiction makes the dialogue easier. The material evidence allows for the story to be palpable as the paintings exist, and so forth. As the senses (smell, touch, etc.) are activated, we can be in a three-dimensional space, relating with our body, and bend over the vitrines to see a cut of a braid of a young girl. It speaks to us differently than verbalized history.

Sicot: I think that the fictional elements of the project strengthen the historical elements. The more we interrogated the institutions of Nogent-sur-Marne, the more we brought to question and life the mysteriousness of some of the ‘real’ characters who live there.

Brereton: As the exhibition possesses the ability to be a site of ‘travel,’ I am interested to learn about the provenance of the photographs in the exhibition as they might trigger past memories. Are these images acquired from institutions?

Häussler: Do you know the work of Sebald?

Brereton: Yes.

Häussler: Sebald juxtaposed arbitrary, but historical relevant, photographs to his texts. He makes it clear that they are not precise. Most of the images were picked up in flea markets and a variety of other sources. We want to believe as we confuse fact and fiction. I state that these photographs are of that time and geography and we then take the opportunity to long and to want to provide the story a sense of reality.

Brereton: At the end of these exhibitions in Toronto, I hope that Sophie can return home to Paris. Thank you, both of you, for sharing this story with me.

This interview has been edited and condensed.