Miriam Bäckström, The Opposite of Me Is I, 2011, tapestry, 9' 6 1/8“ x 32' 10”. Installation view.

Miriam Bäckström, The Opposite of Me Is I, 2011, tapestry, 9' 6 1/8“ x 32' 10”. Installation view.

Miriam Bäckström

Lunds konsthall

Miriam Bäckström, The Opposite of Me Is I, 2011, tapestry, 9' 6 1/8“ x 32' 10”. Installation view.

A revelatory moment in Miriam Bäckström’s impressive retrospective “The Opposite of Me Is I” was her documentary-style video Rebecka, 2004, in which she shifts between interrogating and directing the actress Rebecka Hemse. Hemse is an accomplished performer with a beguiling range of subtle expressions; in this case, they are charged with enigmatic allure by the ambiguity of her character. But when is this actress not performing? Is she ever being herself? “If I consider fiction to be more authentic,” she wonders, “why leave it at all?” Moments later, Bäckström asks pointedly, “When are you most personal?” and Hemse answers without hesitation: “I’m most open when I’m playing open.” We get no closer to finding out who this woman is and, indeed, if you consider fiction to be more authentic, why would you leave it? This is the recurrent question posed by Bäckström’s art over the past twenty years.

Bäckström’s oeuvre unfolds like a piece of metatheater constructed around a loose group of characters, many like Rebecka, who tread the no-man’s-land between their real and invented selves. Even if they are stock characters such as Death, Pierrot, a comical brown bear, or a porn star, and their individual idiosyncracies spring from Bäckström’s own imagination, the drama takes hold as they search for their identities. With no small dose of cruel irony, the artist leads them along, doling out their peculiarities a crumb or two at a time. Her comic touch in this business reminds me of Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry (1997). Some of Bäckström’s characters are fairly well developed, like the ambitious but ambiguous Rebecka, while others, such as Pierrot, get no further than an impressionistic sketch—even if the actor Börje Ahlstedt, cast as Pierrot, serves as model for an enormous tapestry, The Opposite of Me Is I, 2011. They are developed as individual case studies, not in relation to one another. She keeps each character simmering in his or her own juices; she has yet to have Pierrot meet Rebecka, but that reckoning is sure to come. You foresee it just as you recognize the inevitable in Chekhov’s proverbial gun over the mantel: not if, but when.

I suspect the dry run for this apocalyptic meeting of characters is the video Who Am I?, 2011, made with professional actors at the Kölnischer Kunstverein. Bäckström created seven characters, named by colors only, as in Reservoir Dogs (1992), describing them broadly in her notes to give the actors room for their own interpretations: Brown is always smiling, while Green is constantly looking at her watch. In her stage directions, Bäckström writes, “Already now they perform certain movements, display certain attitudes, tics belonging to their characters but which we believe are their own. Everyone looks out towards the Audience as they start to read/act. After a while, when the dialogue begins, they start to turn towards each other as they speak.” The actors are given their scripts just before the play begins, guaranteeing that Who Am I? becomes an experiment, social and otherwise. The experiment ends in its own identity crisis. Blue: “In a week’s time this whole world will be completely different. I promise you.” Red to Blue: “You look great! Do you know who I am?” Orange: “I love being wrong.” Brown: “Oh, you are one of those! You’re really one of those. You’re one of those.” Gray: “I know who you are.” Brown: “Well, that’s who we are.” Pink: “Yes.” The experience made me wonder what would have happened if Samuel Beckett or Bruce Nauman had gathered all of their characters on one stage—bringing together Beckett’s Krapp and Clov, say, or Nauman’s shitting clown and the maniac yelling, “Make me think!” They all belong to the same club as Bäckström’s gang. In the end, this may say more about Beckett, Nauman, and Bäckström than about their characters.

Ronald Jones