PRINT January 2001

Daniel Birnbaum

THE FIRST PICTURE BY ANNEÈ OLOFSSON THAT REALLY made an impression on me, The Mourners—My Last Family Photo, 1996, depicts the Swedish artist surrounded by her family. The image conveys sorrow and loneliness: six elderly people dressed in black, a young woman in the center all in white. It took a while before I realized she was wearing a polar bear costume, holding the animal’s head in her lap. Silly as it sounds, the image radiates dignity. The young woman is an outsider in many ways, a creature who no longer belongs to the group and must be sacrificed—or is it she who wants to distance herself from the crowd?

After almost a decade of exhibiting in Europe, Olofsson now seems to be getting the attention she deserves. In her most recent series of photographs, “God Bless the Absentees,” 2000—which debuted at Schaper Sundberg Galleri in Stockholm and is currently on view in the artist’s solo show at Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York—the sitters seem to meld into their immediate surroundings. In one photo, a bath mat’s shag pile seems to have crept up and covered a young woman’s pajamas; in another picture, a woman wearing a horse-patterned outfit is almost indistinguishable from the horse-patterned bedclothes on which she lies. These are witty images, and they return to a recurrent theme in the artist’s work: the strangeness of that which is very close. Olofsson has worked intensely with her own family ties. In a recent video, for example, the artist’s mother watches over her sleeping daughter while reading aloud the most private of documents: love letters meant for the daughter’s eyes only. In a series of photographs from 1997, Olofsson appears in strangely intimate, even incestuous poses with her father, creating an ambiguous feeling of closeness and icy distance at once. Wherever there is natural belonging together, there is also an implied rift, an underlying sense of isolation. Most often, Olofsson’s works are about herself and about solitude. Hers is a vulnerable ego, alone, haunted by demons.

In the series “Demons,” 1999, a bodyguard follows a young blond woman—the artist herself—wherever she goes. Shot in Gdansk, these photographs capture the blonde in various semilegible situations, outdoors in the dark of night or in a cheap hotel room. Like a menacing shadow, the man is omnipresent—but is he her guardian or her tormentor, a shield against the demons or a projection of the woman’s agitated mind?

There is a core of strange silence in Anneè Olofsson’s work. The, situations presented in her images may be comprehensible on a superficial level: Power relations, family connections, bonds of affection, and intense emotion present themselves in a straightforward way. But something else makes itself felt only after extended viewing, an inexplicable echo that, worrisomely, eludes translation into words. The woman haunted by demons is protected by a bodyguard, so nothing will happen to her. Why, then, do we have the feeling that it’s already too late?

This month DANIEL BIRNBAUM takes on the directorship of the Städelschule art academy in Frankfurt, where he will also head up the celebrated on-site gallery, Portikus. As former director of Sweden’s International Artists’ Studio Program and a contributing editor of Artforum, Birnbaum has played an active role in introducing the work of Nordic artists to an international audience. Trained as a philosopher, he is the author of The Hospitality of Presence: Problems of Otherness in Husserl’s Phenomenology (Almqvist & Wiksell, 1998). His study of the art of Doug Aitken will anchor Phaidon’s forthcoming monograph.