London

Ann-Sofie Sidén

Hayward Gallery

A mere decade ago, according to UK art-world legend, a well-known London gallerist explained that he avoided representing women artists because their work always seemed to be “about problems.” My, how things change. Ann-Sofi Sidén's Warte Mal!: Prostitution after the Velvet Revolution, 1999, a kaleidoscopic video work documenting the post-Communist sex industry in Dubi, a Czech border town, must surely qualify as “problem art” with bells on—but it's been launched at the Wiener Secession and shown at the Hayward without anyone in the art business raising an eyebrow. Indeed, catalogue essayist Robert Fleck fetes the work as proof of video installation's “coming of age” within the history of sculpture. Furthermore, the “problem” Warte Mal! describes—trafficking in women—would now be readily accepted as a universal, not just a feminist, concern; and on weekends in particular, the Hayward's installation was healthily packed with visitors of all genders.

But let's not get overexcited. One suspects that most visitors had been attracted by the Paul Klee exhibition showing alongside Sidén's—a pairing that must have struck many as curious—and a little eavesdropping suggested that many viewers, though appreciative of Warte Mal!'s seriousness, felt it amounted to documentary filmmaking, not art. But it's precisely by working out why Warte Mal! belongs in the gallery (rather than, say, on TV) that one comes to grips with its “problematic” subject matter. The installation comprises a suite of rooms: Two contain assorted glass booths, a third has a glazed wall. Inside the booths, video monitors screen quarter-hour-long interviews (gathered during several months of fieldwork) with inhabitants of Dubi—prostitutes, policemen, a (former?) john, his ex-prostitute wife, and others; further, larger-scale video projections play on various walls. Sound emerges from speakers set at a distance from the video images, producing a subtle disjunction. The installation's deceptively legible architecture mimics shop windows or peep shows, but also a fairground's hall of mirrors: Multiple reflections (of faces on TV and those of gallery visitors) complicate the viewing of the videos, and one's attention is constantly drawn in different directions.

Sidén's interviewees talk with apparent candor, but one is left wondering. A self-congratulatory police chief claims he's been fired because his campaign against prostitution has been “so successful.” An ex-Party member brands Dubi's sex industry an essentially post-Communist problem. A prostitute describes her life, her earnings, and the processes of being “bought” and “sold” with apparent insouciance. A chain-smoking hotel owner casually discourses away, but his hand and cigarette strategically conceal his mouth from the camera. Elsewhere, behind a wall projection of Dubi's prostitutes touting for business, lurks a veritable chamber of horrors: A young woman (her identity concealed) recounts the horrific assaults she endured after being forced into prostitution. Is this the “truth” behind the facade? The installation's totality argues against such a pat reading. There's far too much visual and verbal information to digest in a single, or even a series, of visits. Roughly edited video sequences, awkwardly translated subtitles, momentarily incoherent or indecipherable exchanges between interviewers and interviewees—all convey a sense of immersion in a fantastically complicated micropolitics. Refocused on the frightening complexity and apparent indissolubility of organized crime on a scale that ultimately affects millions, Sidén's longstanding interest in video surveillance is recast as an investigation of the camera's partial vision.

Rachel Withers

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