During one week in the autumn of 1991, Iris Häussler cut out photographs and articles from several European newspapers and then cast them, one by one, into small aluminum trays filled with hot wax salvaged from the used candles of Milan’s churches. This produced almost five hundred wax tablets, each one fixing a clipping within a variable border as if they were 8 x 10 photographs. On the back of each, a strip of newspaper, set just beneath the wax surface, marks the news source and date.    

Contemporary documentation shows Häussler, in residence at the Milano Poesia festival, bent over a line of trays, her large pot of wax on a hotplate. After the tablets cooled and set, she filed them loosely on industrial shelving from which viewers could easily pick them up and look at them. Despite the light-filled, open space of the old, massive ex-industrial Spazio Ansaldo building, there is a sense of a lone person in a darkroom; Häussler is developing a thickly material image of a condition that is existential and often national. A seeing and a kept-from-seeing. 

The clippings take on the hue of the remnant wax. Some are yellow like beeswax; others are more like the artificial white wax of children’s candle-making kits popular in the 1970s. They are rent with heat creases and swirling gathers. A deeply submerged clipping has become an indistinguishable dark form puckering  its  wax casement. A jagged frost obliterates a news story that has fused with minute air bubbles. Most of the tablets preserve black-and-white images of people, but there are also landscapes, streets, maps, and consumer products. One tablet holds a thin, rectangular photograph of several Iranian women densely packed in a crowd. A woman, facing forward, yells as a wax wave swells her place in the interior of the flat tablet while pinprick dots veil its surface. Below, an Italian caption, “Donna … chador.” is all that can be read.

Because each tablet is its own amalgam of dislocations and disappearances, perhaps it is best to choose two tablets with which to further discuss Archivio Milano 1991. The piece was recently installed on the long south wall at Daniel Faria Gallery in Toronto, thirty-four tablets long and six rows high.

Iris Häussler at Milano Poesia, curated by Mario Giusti and Gianni Sassi, Spazio Ansaldo, Milano, Italy, September 30-October 6, 1991
Courtesy of the artist and Daniel Faria Gallery

Fourth row from the top. The tablet at the row’s west end.

Three figures draw the eye. I was going to say “three figures in the foreground,” but there isn’t really foreground or background; all shapes, images, and texts from both sides of the clipping, front and back, combine in the brittle paper plane of the page. At the upper left, a European road sign is visible but place names and distances cannot be read. An arm and a hand emerge from light and dark columns of reverse text in a kind of gesture of inalterable being. The hand is holding something—a couple of straight posts or manufactured sticks. At the bottom, parts of an Italian news caption are visible: “flexing his muscles … the alarm goes off for the Croatian National Guard.”

A thin fault line runs through the entire tablet, tearing the clipping in two nearby the three figures. The degree of immersion within the wax varies the softness of line and shadow; an almost-pictorialism suggests Gerhard Richter’s early paintings based on family and news pictures, such as Herr Heyde or Uncle Rudi (both 1965). Two of the three figures sport the fleshy, soft necks of hard politicians like the men in Sigmar Polke’s Double Portrait (1965), in which the painted enlargement of the raster points of printed news photographs produces a dissolution of the faces. Polke’s Family series (1964–66), along with the work of his contemporaries, Richter, Georg Baselitz, and Eugen Schonebeck, was part of a wider, acute response to the impoverishment and devaluation of the self in a postwar Germany becoming increasingly aware of its inability to mourn.

The most urgent postwar German art responds, on one level or another, to history. But this history is almost nothing at all unless, directly or obliquely, it takes up one’s own family as subject. Searching for reasons behind the inconceivable slaughter of the First World War, Freud speculated that it is impossible to imagine one’s own death. Yet this impossibility might almost be equalled by the difficulty of imagining the inner lives and outer histories of one’s own family members. In Archivio Milano 1991, the “distance between”—either between one person and another, or between a person and the past—doesn’t embolden the soul, as in Freud’s formulation, but is instead a kind of diminishment. The unknowing, the never-to-know, the never-fully-seen is fixed within each tablet.

Perhaps the fundamental attraction of postwar German artists to photography is summed up by Roland Barthes in his Camera Lucida (1980): “There in every photograph: the return of the dead.” Richter’s Table (1962), noted by curator Susanne Küper for “introducing a process of destruction implicit to painting,” features a precisely elegant table belonging to no clear period, obscured by a cloud of pigment wiped onto the centre of the canvas. For me, it is an image of a postwar German art founded less on appearance—on abundant aura—than on forms of disappearance.

Nevertheless, it is surprising that Häussler’s oeuvre has, as yet, not been widely enough seen or properly considered in Germany, the country from which its inmost concerns arise.

Two rows from the bottom, three tablets from the east end.

The view, perhaps taken from a high rooftop, is of Potsdamer Platz in Berlin between the world wars. Above the heavy stone buildings, the sky is furrowed with text. A lamppost, gently buckled toward the surface of the wax, seems more like a quick line drawing than a photograph. This tablet has a dirty, grey pallor, and above the clipping is a processual scar. On a corner building at the left, just above a passing tram, the three-dimensional letters of a commercial sign stand out in the light falling against the newsprint and wax-darkened, dissolving stone. “Josty” is the famous, pre-war café that Curt Bois searches for in the film Wings of Desire (1987). Bois, a well-known Berlin actor in the 1920s and 1930s, plays an old man staggering through the desolate no-man’s-land of Potsdamer Platz, an angel’s hand against his back. “Here?” he says to himself, “It can’t be. Café Josty was on Potsdamer Platz. In the afternoon, I would go there to chat, have coffee, and people watch … Right here … This can’t be Potsdamer Platz.”

It is easy to forget that Wim Wenders and Peter Handke’s now-classic film belongs to the thinking and making of memory that took place in the 1980s. That it, too, grappled with the Historikerstreit, the widely followed “historians’ dispute” over Germany’s conception of the war and the Holocaust. These questions, of course, are still unresolved; Thomas Heise’s documentary Heimat is a Place in Time (2019) is the most recent major contribution to this ongoing national-familial reckoning.

There is no question that Archivio Milano 1991, a significant work of its time, is part of this conversation. After Häussler emigrated from Munich to Toronto, in 2001, she staged, in quite different forms, her subsequent major works, The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach (2006) and The Sophie La Rosière Project (2016) among them. Nevertheless, it is surprising that Häussler’s oeuvre has, as yet, not been widely enough seen or properly considered in Germany, the country from which its inmost concerns arise.

APRIL 10–JULY 31, 2021

Iris Häussler, Archivio Milano 1991 (detail) (1991) Wax, newspaper, metal, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Daniel Faria Gallery