Saskia Olde Wolbers

Tate Britain

Placebo, 2002, a DVD projection by the London-based Dutch artist Saskia Olde Wolbers, is loosely based on the notorious case of Jean-Claude Romand, a Frenchman who masqueraded as a physician and World Health Organization researcher for many years before murdering his family when his fiction was about to be exposed—the same fait divers that also inspired two films, Laurent Cantet’s L’Emploi du temps (Time Out, 2001) and Nicole Garcia’s L’Adversaire (2002), itself taken from Emmanuel Carrère’s 2000 novel of the same name. Placebo’s first-person voiceover narrative emanates from within the dim semiconsciousness of a comatose woman lying in intensive care next to the lover with whom she was trapped in a terrible car crash. The hospital is the same one where the lover had worked as a surgeon, having transferred there, he claimed, from the hospital where the woman worked as a nurse. Finally on the brink of confirming her mounting suspicions that he was no doctor, the woman recounts, she discovered that the wife and kids he could not bear to leave were also a fantasy. Realizing that his baroque deception was about to be torn apart, in a panic, her lover drove their car into a tree.

The voice-over text is unusually well written; while there may be holes in the story or lapses in verisimilitude, they only add to the dreamlike fatalism of the drifting, fragmented tale. But it’s the imagery that makes Placebo so absorbing: a sequence of uninhabited hospital interiors that seem to liquefy and break apart into droplets before one’s eyes. These interiors were constructed of wire, coated with a viscous whitish substance—could it even be paint?—and submerged in water. The movements of the water, perhaps corresponding in some way to the vibrations of the speech that we hear, cause the set to drip away and disperse, like the structure of lies the narrator’s lover had built up, or the dissolving life force of the speaker herself. The pale blue-green light that seems to seep through from some unspecifiable distance helps convey the sense of a muffled yet not quite extinguished consciousness—a druggy state that is claustrophobic, uncanny, even frightening, yet seductive.

If the piece, shown last year at Büro Friedrich in Berlin and now brought to London as part of the Tate’s Art Now series, has any fault, it’s that it is almost too good—too slick, too brilliant, too adept at lending a formal restraint to the underlying melodrama of the material, so that one admires the technique as much as the unearthly sensations the technique conveys. But why the title? A placebo, as everyone knows, is an inert substance administered to stimulate the curative effects of the patient’s own belief in medicine, or else as the control in an experiment intended to test the effectiveness of some other drug. The placebo effect raises all sorts of questions about the relation between bodies and minds, not least because placebos, surprisingly, have measurable effects even on patients who are not being fooled by them—who are told in advance that what they are taking is not “real” medicine. The placebo for Wolbers’s narrator may be the fiction of love that she has willingly accepted in place of reality. For the viewer, it’s the way the constructed imagery, though continually showing its unreality by breaking up and dribbling away, retains its illogical fascination and emotional force.

Barry Schwabsky