BY Charles LaBelle in Reviews | 05 MAY 01
Featured in
Issue 59

Année Olofsson

BY Charles LaBelle in Reviews | 05 MAY 01

Whether unspoken or penned in blood, there is a contract between two people engaged in any relationship. Covering everything from services to be performed and codes of conduct to be adhered to, the contract fosters mutual understanding and trust. In the case of relationships where the power dynamic is more explicit, the contract not only delineates these parameters but is essential to the heightened pleasures that accompany the participants' varying degrees of dominance or submission. Severin, the aristocratic protagonist of Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs (1870), is a perfect example, insisting on putting in writing the agreement that will strip him of all freedom and make him Wanda's slave.

Entering into her own dubious contract, in 1999 Swedish artist Anneè Olofsson hired a professional bodyguard to accompany her and chronicled their interaction in a series of photographs. Underscoring a paradox of power whereby masters inevitably become dependent upon their servants, Olofsson's dependency upon the bodyguard seems a significant part of the work. In image after image we see the blonde, frail-looking artist lost amid desolate landscapes and dark interiors; her bodyguard in his official blue windbreaker, always nearby, always vigilant. Under his protection the subject (what does one call the person protected by a bodyguard?) relinquishes a fair amount of freedom, the price of security being a measure of captivity. Given his specific task, the bodyguard's role is surprisingly protean. Fraught with sexual tension, he is both substitute father and a potential lover (Patty Hearst married hers). By putting one's life in his hands, one awards the bodyguard a privileged intimacy and an exorbitant degree of trust. This is perhaps why they so easily fall under suspicion. Which leads us to the question: what happens when you begin to fear your bodyguard?

In Olofsson's photographs the bodyguard's presence is far from reassuring. When he isn't pictured, he can be felt lurking just out of frame, as in the image of the artist standing on a deserted road at night, her back illuminated by car headlights. Like a scene from a thousand gangster movies, we can easily imagine the bodyguard, paid off by Olofsson's enemies, levelling a gun at her head. Self-consciously cinematic, the images in 'Demons' (1999) have an unsettling, narrative quality, which is suffused with all the histrionic passions, ambitious schemes and dirty double-crossings of a 1940s film noir. The inverse of Warhol's films, where real moments rupture artifice, Olofsson's supposedly real situations are constrained by their vague, quasi-expressionistic trappings. Removed from daily life, her project has little to do with her actual relationship with the bodyguard. His apparent dominance in the photographs is ultimately belied by the artist's obvious role as director. In fact, it seems relatively unimportant that he is an actual bodyguard, as opposed to an actor or model. Presenting herself and the guard in posed tableaux, Olofsson's photographs leave the impression that little is truly at stake. Lacking the potential for unexpected, potentially dangerous, episodes - as when the man Sophie Calle follows in Suite Venitienne (1981) confronts her - 'Demons' never erupts into the poignant, ugly or revelatory moments that one would expect under the circumstances.

Significantly, in an earlier series Olofsson photographed herself and her father in poses emulating publicity stills from Charlotte Rampling films.

An actress whose roles are often darkly erotic and tinged with self-destructive, self-serving vulnerability, Rampling functions as a double for Olofsson, whose own vulnerability is something of a ploy to get others to lower their defences. Thus, the second bodyguard, who stays awake while Olofsson sleeps in the video Demons Sweet Nausea (1999), is actually the subject of the work, scrutinized for almost seven hours in the small drab hotel room as he does nothing but watch TV and smoke. An existential drama (the title nods to Sartre), the video layers voyeurs one atop the other, with no one occupying a privileged position of omniscience. In a similar work Olofsson's mother sits on the edge of a bed while again the artist slumbers. Asked to read aloud letters written to Olofsson by her ex-boyfriends, her mother seems visibly uneasy with the intimate revelations that pour forth.

Like Fassbinder, whose casting of his mother often resulted in brutal, telling humour, in her best work Olofsson twists familial power dynamics into uncomfortable ambiguities. Her large colour image The Mourners - My Last Family Photo (1996) emulates a traditional family portrait, and was taken on the occasion of her parents' divorce proceedings - the nullification of their contractual relationship. Seating herself at the centre of the group, Olofsson, poker-faced, wears a polar bear costume as if to comment on the often chilly, bestial nature of all family gatherings.