PRINT Summer 1999


“I think we have a visitor.” With a robust grip, Dr. Ruth Fielding, the protagonist of Ann-Sofi Sidén’s 1997 film, QM, I think I call her QM, reaches under the bed and drags out the naked monster-woman caked in mud. “Don’t be difficult. For God’s sake come on!” Dr. Fielding, who’s a bit of a control freak and prefers to interact with the world beyond her apartment walls through surveillance cameras, records her every thought on tape. “I see as my assignment to see who she is, and what her purpose is,” she intones into the microphone, and we hear the sentence immediately played back. “Hm . . . Origin and age unknown, mammal features. She’s obviously of the female species, and in pretty bad shape.” The scene is set for a compelling power/knowledge thriller.

The point where reason turns against itself and into something very different—a form of madness, perhaps?—is the locus of Swedish-born artist Ann-Sofi Sidén’s various films and installations. Most radiate a scary, ice-cold vision of reason run amok: the world transformed into a gigantic, vertiginous network of surveillance and control. If some pieces seem to offer a way out of the iron cage, QM, co-directed with Tony Gerber, pictures the world as an overwhelming panoptical machine from which there is no escape.

While QM marks the first time the Queen of Mud and her psychiatric other have crossed paths, the two have been mainstays of Sidén’s work since 1989, when the artist’s fleshy, Golem-like alter ego turned up at the perfume counter at NK, Stockholm’s fanciest department store, asking to sample something by Chanel. Before security escorted her away, she explained her mud coat to the inquisitive salespeople: “It’s how I prefer to travel.” Since then she has appeared in many places—on Swedish television, admiring jets at the Stockholm through the streets of New York’s Lower East Side. Unlike the female beast, the retired doctor is modeled on a real person, Alice E. Fabian, a Manhattan psychiatrist who died in 1992 and whose derelict Ninth Street townhouse was the venue for the 1994 group show “Who Has Enlarged This Hole?” During the preparation for the exhibition, Sidén discovered cryptic observations inscribed on the walls of the uninhabited building “Monitoring Station # 51 W 9th St.,” “Monitoring Station # 55 W 9th St.” Next to a small cavity in the basement were penned the words “Who has enlarged this hole?” In addition to the graffiti and a huge psychiatric library, Sidén came across the doctor’s diaries, written as well as taped. It became clear that Fabian had been involved in a scrupulous investigation of her own life and the immediate
surroundings of the building, and was convinced that she herself was under constant surveillance. In fact, her way of relating to her neighbors testified to a case of full-blown paranoia.

In the preface to Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault declares, “We have yet to write the history of that other form of madness, by which men, in an act of sovereign reason, confine their neighbors, and communicate and recognize each other through the merciless language of non-madness.” The real-life Dr. Fabian—no doubt an example of such “merciless non-madness” had worked for the New York State Department for Fraud and Abuse, where she supervised other psychiatrists’ reports. In her meticulous scrutiny of alleged attacks on her private life, even her body, she employs a rhetoric no different from that used in the psychiatric reports she filed by day. But the doctor—as Heidegger once said of Lacan—is clearly in need of a doctor. QM, starring Kathleen Chalfant as the mesmerizing shrink, develops into a peculiar mix of realistic narrative and dreamlike fantasy. Although she uses clinical techniques, the lone doctor’s inquiries could well be taking place within her own imagination, where things that initially appear as empirical entities are suddenly revealed to be unusually convincing projections. When staging encounters between the mysterious alien and things we know from our ordinary world—including a green lizard and a blindfolded, almost naked call boy—is the psychiatrist merely enacting her own clashing desires? Of that we will never be sure, and this very uncertainty is typical of Sidén’s work.

Long before encountering the New York doctor and her ruthless “non-madness,” Sidén was already mining those fields—psychiatry, anthropology—in which the intersection of knowledge and power enjoy a certain privilege. In CODEX, 1993, she created her own ethnographic museum, displaying female figures undergoing forms of punishment indigenous to Sweden from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment. One depicts a woman being buried alive—her eyes staring out in horror, her mouth open in a scream, the rest of her body submerged. One can’t help but see a connection with the work that would come: femininity, back with a vengeance, covered in mud. The world of American psychiatry is a particularly fertile source for Sidén’s fantasies. A series of installations have developed out of this encounter, the most powerful being Would a course of Deprol have saved van Gogh’s ear?, 1996, at the Rooseum in Malmö, a claustrophobic room papered with advertisements for psychopharmacological drugs. More disconcerting than the “content” is the madhouse nature of the installation, which appropriates its title from a 1968 pitch found in the pages of the American Journal of Psychiatry. Once you enter the room, which is as brightly lit as the most radiant Claritin ad, the door shuts automatically behind you; there is no handle on the inside. A disturbing sense of being implicated in a complex control apparatus was also produced by Day’s Inn . . ., 1998, at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, as well as It is by confining one’s neighbor that one is convinced of one’s own sanity, 1995, at Galerie Nordenhake in Stockholm, the first installation to include a real-time monitoring system.

Like Bruce Nauman’s video corridors and Julia Scher’s installations with hidden and visible cameras, Sidén’s work produces a palpable anxiety. What sets her projects apart is the courting of an ambivalence that is never resolved. When viewing her installations, it normally takes a while for you to realize that you are yourself involved, and the status of the footage remains disconcertingly unclear—is it really live or prerecorded? This ambiguity serves to deepen your distrust of everyday technology.

Claustrophobia and paranoia are recurring themes in Sidén’s work. Good Morning America!, a video installation presented in 1994 at New York’s P.S. 1, depicts five half-naked male prisoners trapped in boxes too small for a human body. The installation comprised five monitors stacked atop one another to mimic the grim arrangement of the compartment-like boxes, the inmates communicate in an aggressive manner, handing various objects up and down from. cell to cell, but the aesthetic effect has an obvious slapstick quality, making the piece bearable, even enjoyable, like some dismal scene in Beckett. Similarly, Who Told the Chambermaid?, 1998, originally shown as part of Manifesta 2 in Luxembourg and on display at the Venice Biennale this summer, should give rise to feelings of anxiety and paranoia in the viewer, but instead produces a voyeuristic curiosity. On a large number of video screens you can follow the mundane goings-on in several hotel rooms: people sleeping, reading, undressing, and coming out of the bathroom. The monitors, tucked away alongside freshly folded towels and rolls of toilet paper in a tidy little storage cabinet, might give the viewer the impression that the clandestine security system has been set up by employees thought to be busy cleaning the rooms but actually engaged in a more sinister operation.

The most effective of Sidén’s pieces are, I think, the ones that are the least spectacular. I often pass by her Stockholm gallery and catch a glimpse of myself on a lone black-and-white monitor on the other side of the window. I can’t see the camera; there may be more than one. These straightforward surveillance systems are analytic and completely unsentimental works. They don’t really offer us much, just an ever-present reminder of the icy gloom of technological reason. In such a state of complete disenchantment, it would indeed be a sign of tremendous hope if a little mud monster would have the goodness to slither forth from the night of the unconscious. It doesn’t seem likely.

Daniel Birnbaum contributes frequently to Artforum.