When I asked Anneè Olofsson about the nature of her work, her areas of interest and the genesis of her ideas, she told me to imagine stepping into a shop filled with objects for sale I did not want or need: men's over-sized shoes, tiny high heels, designer glasses-beautiful but number 10 in strength, a very small pool table with large green balls; and a larger-than-life (and thus unusable) prosthetic hand. The "store" she described has a toehold in reality, but through a slight torque in the imagination is more surreal than real. These images resonate for her specifically because of their nightmarish peculiarities. We can all identify with this place where dreams and nightmares coincide: taking a test for which we are unprepared, breathing underwater, flying, or more horrifyingly, riding the bus naked or defecating in public. We know upon waking that the objects seen, the actions played out and the places visited were not real. Yet, the emotions experienced and later remembered are as real as any felt during waking hours.
Olofsson channels her personal inhibitions, anxieties and fantasies into this dream space. The settings of her photographs and videos are simple, often benign. Most often she is the main subject either alone or interacting with her parents, family or close friends. Her activities are fairly normal, or at least appear that way—dancing, sleeping, standing with her father, or walking around town. The surface appears ordinary. The experience is not.
Olofsson is more attracted to the small fears that float in and out of our subconscious rather than shocking us with images of horror. As with the situation she asked me to imagine, she twists reality rather than exploiting it. Like the stories of Franz Kafka—in which the protagonist wakes to find himself altered—Olofsson mixes up the expected, placing herself or her subjects in situations that occupy a space between that which is normal and that which is bizarre, uncomfortable or even taboo. She lays out the circumstances in a simplistic format, then asks the viewer to unravel the psychology, just as Kafka sets his stories with a simple first line, then spends the remainder of the book analyzing his main character's situation. ("When Gregor Samsa awoke from troubled dreams one morning, he found that he had been transformed in his bed into an enormous bug.")(1)
Olofsson's work is a fusion of contemporary life, daily thoughts and memories from childhood. Sometimes, it is inspired by a reaction to a specific event or feeling. For example, in December 1999, Olofsson participated in a residency in Gdansk, Poland where she had been invited to spend one month making art for a subsequent exhibition. The emotional distance between the perceived luxury of devoting a solid month to making art and the stark reality of being alone in a strange city during the darkest winter month manifests itself immediately. Olofsson found her Eastern European post-Cold War surroundings oppressive. She never felt physically threatened. However, when a passerby suggested she not travel down a certain road for fear of being stopped by authorities, she realized how impossible it was to feel safe when alone in an unfamiliar environment, regardless of whether it is benign or hostile. The stark surroundings had an impact on her subconscious as well. She experienced depression, nightmares and an exaggerated sense of vulnerability. ("Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.")(2)
Olofsson's solution to this either real or perceived threat of danger was to hire a Polish bodyguard to "protect" her during her stay in Gdansk. The bodyguard, who was told nothing about his client, accompanied her wherever she went. The activities were documented through a series of photographs called "Demons" and exhibited at the end of her residency. Like most of Olofsson's work, the imagery consists of starkly lit figures set against an impenetrable black background and reminds one more of a Caravaggio painting than photographs. Olofsson, too, sees her work as much more painterly than photographic, using a matte finish which is more like velvet and an oversized format.
It is tempting to see the works as documenting performance, yet neither Olofsson's actions nor those of the bodyguard were staged or pre-planned. In a related video called "Demons Sweet Nausea", Olofsson extends the theme by hiring a bodyguard to protect her while she sleeps in a hotel room in San Francisco. Like the juxtaposition of the words in the title, the concept of protection here is double-edged. The bodyguard protects from external harm but can he insulate her from her subconscious nocturnal meanderings? What comes to mind is Sophie Calle's conceptual piece ''A Suivre" where she hired a detective to follow her, an activity that blurred the lines between protection and surveillance.
Though she is now in her mid-thirties, Olofsson remains deeply connected to memories of childhood, family interactions and the relationship between parent and child. What was dramatically apparent to her, being alone in Gdansk and later in San Francisco, is that there was no one to protect her from danger or from her fears. Who will keep watch? As children, we all depend on adults, particularly parents, to guard us from physical harm and to comfort us from the residue of a nightmare. As an adult there is no protective barrier. This Kafkaesque fear of that which is beyond our control is at the core of Olofsson's work. As simple as this activity and even the images may appear, they are psychologically charged. Clearly, no one is protected from their internal demons. It is this taffy pull between a sense of security in the external world and the internal workings of the psyche that fascinates the artist.
The evolving role between parent and child occupies a place in much of Olofsson's work. It is the underlying theme of the "Unfamiliar" series. Olofsson is the main character in a staged drama. In two photographs done in reverse of each other, an older man helps a young woman pull the dress over her head. We immediately see this in a sexual context. Of course, most people will not realize the man is Olofsson's father, a component that projects the interaction into taboo. It also plays on the duplicity of dreams. Is he the protector or the demon?
What interests Olofsson is the notion of continuity and change in the relationship between parent and child. What a father does hundreds of times during his daughter's childhood—helping her undress—changes with the passage of time. A child becomes an adult, the father is still her father, but what was acceptable one year is not the next. Olofsson asks the viewer to consider: when does a simple action during childhood become a transgression as an adult? And is the onus only on the father? How does the daughter, as artist, mark this shift from adolescence to womanhood?
In an elegant self-portrait from this series, Olofsson sits, arms folded across her bent knees, gazing beyond the camera. Her plain white dress stands in stark contrast to the deep black background. From the left a man's arm—dressed in a coat, white shirt and cufflinks—reaches out to caress her face. From the right, a woman's arm encircled with a watch and bracelet—strokes her hair. It is a touching moment read in this way. Yet, with one tiny slip of the wrist, the actions have the potential to change, a caress into a slap, a soft touch into a yank. The three hands form a central triangle, a trinity encircling Olofsson—grandmother to the father, father to the daughter and daughter descended from them both.
Olofsson again examines the relationship between parent and child in two videos from 2000. "You need her and you want her golden hair/she sees you but she won't love you because she really doesn't care" is a 52 minute video in which Olofsson's mother reads aloud her daughter's old love letters written by past boyfriends. Meanwhile, her daughter lies with her back to the mother and the viewer, apparently sleeping. On the surface, there is a sweet peacefulness to the activity; a reenactment of something the mother did many times when her daughter was a child. At the same time, there is an inherent act of transgression. This is not a children's story but her daughter's love letters sent while she negotiated the change from adolescent to adulthood. Love letters are private, meant only for the eyes of the recipient—yet they are being read by the mother, out loud in the presence of her daughter.
In his book The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard discusses that place within ourselves where secrets are kept, why they are kept and what happens when they are revealed. "The action of the secret passes continually from the hider of things to the hider of self," he notes. To this day, Olofsson finds the video difficult to watch, as if the reading of these letters exposes a dangerous inner part of herself.
In the short period of time covered by these letters, the act of writing love letters has for the most part become obsolete, replaced bye-mail and the easy access of telephones. Olofsson is influenced by popular culture—music, threatre and cinema. The title "You need her.... " are the lyrics of a song by a favored band, an apt juxtaposition of the artist's blonde hair with past suitors.
Sleeping, or the suggestion of sleep, is a device used repeatedly throughout her work, a metaphor for escape or suggestion of that other world inhabited when not awake. She sleeps here, perhaps the peaceful sleep of a child, perhaps the deep sleep of escapism. In Olofsson's work there is always the possibility that it all exists as a dream, that the sleeper is the only "real" entity and that everything else is the world of dreams. Thus, the mother's reading of the daughter's love letters plays out the fear of the inner self discovered and stolen.
"Head over Heels" is a companion to "You need her.... ", a video in which Olofsson attempts to jitterbug with her father. Her father is an accomplished dancer, the artist a novice. The video was shot once, without rehearsal or subsequent editing. It is shown complete with awkwardness and imperfection, the child following the complicated movements of the parent. There is no music accompanying the video, which only adds to it's incongruity. (And when shown in the same room with "You need her.... ", the only sound—to which Anneè and her father dance is that of her mother's voice reading the love letters.) In both examples, Olofsson places not only herself, but her parents in situations that are disquieting and potentially embarrassing. We as the audience identify with this awkwardness, even though it makes us uncomfortable. Olofsson achieves this effect because of a willingness to place herself in these maladroit situations. "Head over Heels" is a visual idiomatic phrase—the connotation is about falling in love while the exact translation visually conveys a dramatic fall.
"God Bless the Absentees," 2000 also deals with notions of identify. It confronts the very real anxiety of losing oneself among the mass of humanity. Olofsson places the action not out in the world but at home, where we should feel the safest and happiest. Here, the artist dresses herself and friends in outfits she constructed to match their surroundings—the bathroom rug, the sofa, the bedspread. The central characters not only blend in with the background, they become it. It is a humorous and apt metaphor for loss of identity. In one of the most poignant of the grouping, she and her male companion, an ex-boyfriend, wear identical outfits that match the cheap, shiny gold material of the bedspread. They are one, indistinguishable from their environment. He looks out the window in a dream-like detachment while she sleeps. Clearly, neither wants to be there and they spend their time dreaming of another place. Contrary to the happiness often promised by the charade of a home and family, Olofsson observes the reality of discontent that many people actually experience in such situations. For her, the notion of being trapped in a cliché is a very real fear. She wonders what will happen when we will not be able to do what we want to do, just experience it virtually, in dreams, reading books or watching television.
Although fashion is not an area of influence in Olofsson's work, it is interesting to note the relationship of her still photography with fashion campaigns, particularly in the posed stance of the characters. The striking difference between the two is the psychology inherent in the relationships Olofsson sets up between herself, other characters and even the viewer. Not surprisingly, one of her most significant art historical references are the paintings of Piero della Francesca.
Olofsson's work comes out of life's experience rather than existing as a conceptual exercise. She explores the darker side of humanity, often with a suggestion of beauty or a touch of humor. With her elegant, oversized, and dramatic set-ups, the artist seduces us with this beauty and humor, while questioning the nature of reality. It is a reality that shifts intangibly between dreaming and waking, a nether region that is not neutral at all, but packed with metaphor, autobiography and universal conundrums.
1. The first line from Kafka's short story The Metamorphosis.
2. The first line from Kafka's novel The Trial.
3. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964. P.88.