Honest Threads

by Mona Filip

In my late teens I had a recurring dream of myself older, somewhere in my thirties, with the long hair that I later did have, wearing her coat… the coat you see here. In the dream it is night and raining. From a distance I see myself begin to cross a wide city street. The sheen of the wet night on the streetcar tracks leads the light from the street lamps toward me. Looking out from within this older self, I scan the street for cars, notice the light on the tracks and begin to run across the slick pavement. Then there is a blinding flash of light, a crash, and the dream ends. My mother died when I was in my early thirties. After a time, I took all her beautiful clothes to an upscale vintage clothier. All except this coat. – Stephanie Rayner

We arrived in Toronto, at Union Station, on Caribana Weekend 1985. A friend came to pick us up and took us to his condo on Lakeshore at Long Branch, where he set up a bed for us in his dining room. It took me three weeks to find a job writing computer programs for a large downtown company. We moved into our own place in a drab, ugly high-rise at Bathurst and Steeles. A couple of weeks later, somebody at work told me about the CNE and said we must go … my wife and daughter went on the rides but I just stood and stared at this green rugby shirt at the booth of the “All Things Irish” stand. As a lifelong rugby fan and a major admirer of the Irish National team, I was fascinated and I massively wanted that shirt. The jersey was forty dollars … groceries for a week. – Many years later, for my fiftieth birthday, my family gave me that same jersey… I now wear it once a year on March 17th– Miki Uhlyarik

The civil war started in Rwanda on October 1st, 1990. When it happened we didn’t know it was going to become a genocide. Tutsis started being taken to jail or killed, and every day you were wondering if you were the next target. Within one week from October 4th, many Tutsis, close to 10,000, were jailed without any explanation, just based on assumptions and made-up stories that they were helping the Tutsi rebels. During this period of time, some of my friends, neighbours and co-workers were taken to prison. It was just a question of time until I would be taken also, and I knew that life in prison without money would be terrible. I got the idea to hide money in my pants so that if I was taken I could use the money to bribe people to get what I needed. I made a hole in the lining of the waistband and put in 25,000 francs (about $40 now, $250 in 1999) inside. I wore only those pants and one other pair I altered the same way, and never used the money for anything, saving it for the time I would end up in prison. – Leo Kabalisa

After the war my mother and my father awaited transport to Canada in Berlin’s American Zone. My Uncle Moishe was in the Russian army in the Russian Zone and my mother decided she was going to smuggle him out with the help of the Red Cross… She trekked for miles to find the barracks, managed to pass inspection carrying an American passport into the Russian Zone!!!… all while pregnant with her first baby… My mother left behind her beloved sister Isa in Riga… She always worried whether Isa would be endangered by my mother’s illegal adventure… In 1977, Isa’s daughter was getting married… My mother was so sad that she could not go… she was sure there were WANTED posters of her at every police station… After months of coaxing, I convinced her that after all this time there could not possibly be any risk… At Russian customs… we were thoroughly interrogated… We stayed in a hotel room, as we were not allowed to stay with my aunt… and we were followed… I started to understand a little bit about the paranoia that had occupied my mother’s psyche for so many years. This is a photograph of my mother and her sister Isa at the wedding, with their hairdos and party dresses on… reunited… in a kiss… – Soozi Schlanger

Iris Häussler, Honest Threads, 2009 (installation detail). Mixed media, variable dimensions.
Iris Häussler, Honest Threads, 2009 (installation detail). Mixed media, variable dimensions.Photo: Isaac Applebaum.

Famous for constructing immersive environments that reveal personal histories, real or fictional, Iris Häussler counts on the complicity of the public as active contributor to her work. Viewers are compelled to relinquish the passive role of spectators, to participate in constructing the reality drafted by the artist. Häussler’s complex installations integrating found or fabricated archives and artifacts rely on the audience’s suspension of disbelief, on the individual capacity of each viewer to fill in blanks and evolve their own narrative. Often relying on concealment to delay our perception of them as artistic productions, her relational1 projects raise questions about the demarcation between art and everyday life. Pushing the line even further, Honest Threads overtly involves the public in the actual content production from the beginning. Responding to the Koffler Gallery’s invitation to develop the first project in a new off-site program, Häussler engaged Torontonians in sharing their real life stories, staging an installation where they, not the artist, occupy the limelight.

An unexpected spot of intense, silky red draws the eye across the piles of inexpensive jeans, packaged shirt-and-tie combos and other shmatas in the men’s department at Honest Ed’s, Toronto’s landmark discount store. A little boutique is nestled between the hair salon and the antiques collection. Imitating the store’s famous marquee, a large hand-painted sign announces: Honest Threads. Inside, a few metal racks display unique garments – a strange mix of attractive vintage pieces and everyday clothes showing no distinctive qualities. The walls are covered with rows of small frames encasing photographs and texts. The connective thread is soon apparent: the photographs introduce the owners of the clothes, while the texts tell their stories.

Blending visual art, literature and theatre, Honest Threads is an interactive project that both imitates and challenges museum practices. The role of the artist as creator is de-centralized and reclaimed by multiple authors. The setting – Honest Ed’s – subverts expectations regarding the place of art and the ritual of our engagement with it. With its overload of celebrity portraits and eccentric sales items, Honest Ed’s is no ordinary store but a museum in itself, blurring the boundaries between commercial, public and exhibition spaces. Finally, the actual installation emulates a mercantile enterprise while at the same time assuming museological methodologies. Although set-up as an old-fashioned upscale boutique, Honest Threads presents an unusual display: garments that are not intended for commerce, along with the memories they carry. Lent by ordinary Torontonians as well as local celebrities, each item holds a personal story revealing a glimpse of the many threads that weave one’s identity over time. The history they tell is fragmentary and private. The objects are not preserved with anthropological care, but meant to be handled and borrowed. The interaction between the audience and the work of art is unmediated.


As pieces of a vast puzzle, the individual stories at the core of Honest Threads render a partial portrait of the city while weaving a web of connections between participants on both sides of the storytelling. Able to borrow the garments for a few days and to wear them, viewers experience both literally and psychologically what it is like to “walk in someone else’s shoes.” Any explorer of the narrative labyrinth has to proceed with caution. A festive wedding gown can hide heartbreak, an elegant Chanel imitation suit speaks of overcoming poverty and abuse, and an unassuming pair of black pants bares a deep scar in the fold of their waistband. Poignant, stirring, or sometimes humorous, the personal accounts span the whole register of human emotion, relating the individuals who have lived or recalled them to those who make their way through the exhibition, reading, touching, wearing and feeling. Through the process of sharing the memory-laden clothes, participants add new layers to the garments’ histories, all the while expanding the work of art beyond the three dimensions of the exhibition space, encompassing the network of relationships thus generated.

With show-bill aplomb, Honest Ed’s illuminates the heart of downtown Toronto at the intersection of Bathurst and Bloor Streets. Capturing the imagination of passers-by with its quirky aesthetics and self-deprecating advertisements, the store represents a piece of the city’s history, attesting to the story of its founder, Ed Mirvish. The son of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Austria, his philanthropic generosity and his contributions to Toronto’s cultural scene had an invaluable impact on the city. At the same time, Honest Ed’s is the ultimate bargain destination and a safe haven for newcomers to Canada. Spotlighting the store’s significance, Honest Threads positions it as the meeting point of individual Toronto narratives of immigration, survival and childhood dreams, entwined with the city’s cultural history. The experiences traded by storytellers and “storywearers” deepen the collective perception of the place we call – sometimes emphatically, sometimes doubtfully – home.

Iris Häussler, Honest Threads, 2009 (installation detail). Mixed media, variable dimensions.
Iris Häussler, Honest Threads, 2009 (installation detail). Mixed media, variable dimensions. Photo: Isaac Applebaum.

1 French curator and critic Nicholas Bourriaud defined relational aesthetics in his 1998 book of the same title and described relational art as “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context.” Relational practices are engaged widely by contemporary artists including Torontonians Anne Fauteux and Ilona Staples who participated as lenders in Honest Threads.

Iris Häussler was born in Friedrichshafen, Germany and immigrated to Canada in 2001. She studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich and has exhibited widely throughout Europe. She is best known for her off-site installations in which she constructs fictitious personae through the material environment they live in. Locations have included rented apartments (Ou topos, 1989; Ou topos, 1990; Mneme, 1996; Monopati, 2000), hotel rooms (Propolis, 1993), an entire residential house in downtown Toronto for The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach (2006), curated by Rhonda Corvese, and a major intervention into the Art Gallery of Ontario with He Named Her Amber (2008), curated by David Moos. Häussler’s interest lies in the range of reactions of her protagonists to their life circumstances; Mark Kingwell has coined the term “haptic conceptual” for these narrative encounters. A complementary part of Häussler’s work focuses on the visitor, with interactive installations that explore human existence and biography, including collections of human milk (Paidi, 1994) or institutional laundry (On Loan, 1995), interventions into hotel rooms (Piggyback, 1995), redefining the gallery as an overnight sleeping space (Xenotope, 1994, 1997, 1998, 2000) or exchanging clothing (Transition coat, 1999). Häussler currently lives and works in Toronto.

Design and Editing: Tony Hewer | Photography: Isaac Applebaum
Digital publication to the exhibition Iris Häussler: Honest Threads
Presented by the Koffler Gallery Off-Site at Honest Ed’s | January 22 to March 29, 2009 | Curator: Mona Filip

© Koffler Centre of the Arts, 2009, in collaboration with the individual contributors.
All rights reserved. ISBN 978-0-920863-87-9.

Koffler family FoundationCIBC Wood GundyOntario Arts Council | Conseil Des Arts De L'OntarioToronto Arts Council | Funded by the City of TorontoCanada Council