Search the web for ‘psychotic psychiatrist’ and you will find more entries for Ann-Sofi Sidén than for any psychiatrists, thanks to Dr Alice E. Fabian, the paranoid schizophrenic on whom Sidén based her memorable thriller QM, I Think I Call Her QM (1997). What Google won’t tell you about is Sidén’s nagging insistence on getting beneath the skin of subjects that society would prefer to leave alone. These include some of the great modern themes – surveillance, insanity, obsession, control, vulnerability and violence – and in this retrospective, ‘In Between the Best of Worlds’, they are laid out one after another.
The newest work here, 3 MPH Horse to Rocket (2003), is a filmed account of Sidén’s horse ride across Texas, from San Antonio and the Alamo to the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. Dressed like a cowboy ranch escapee, she embarks on an odyssey that takes 25 days, bunking along the way at livestock arenas, country churches and even sleeping out under the stars. For a European, no doubt, this trip set out to cut a romantic swath through the fantasy of an American Wild West populated by pioneers – from cowboys to astronauts – but it may only have quenched her obsession with the dusty monotony of what it is like to grow up poor in the backwaters of one of the ‘red states’ that carried President Bush to the White House.
The narrow-eyed Texans staring at a woman being filmed on horseback drifting though places such as Lavaca County and Alvin (population 21,413) make it clear that the obsessive scrutiny of things alien is a two-way street. Exoticism is relative. But if the Xanadu octane that lured Paul Gauguin to Tahiti is in short supply here, Sidén’s film is sodden with the dreariness that took Walker Evans to Alabama. Her trip is more like an innocuous invasion, and reminiscent of the attitude of Andrea Zittel’s postcards from her settlement in the California high desert, Martin Kippenberger’s ad hoc installation on the Greek island of Syros and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s involvement with the socio-artistic Land Foundation programme in the village of Sanpatong, near Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Sidén has a knack for carving characters out of her art, and the Queen of Mud – or QM for short – is an alter ego who appears in an assortment of her work. QM is a powerfully built Ur-woman, thinly lathered in light greyish mud and sporting a sloping Neanderthal forehead and pudgy lips. She appears in the sight-gag QM at NK (1989). Dress yourself in nothing but a sheer coating of mud and shamble along the cosmetic counters of NK (Stockholm’s version of Harrods), as Sidén did, and it should be no surprise that the shop-till-you-drop denizens are only mildly bemused, which is precisely what happened as QM sampled a spritz of Chanel No. 5. Nor is it difficult to understand that, as a result, no one recanted the lifestyles that brought them to NK in the first place, least of all QM. In this role, one would not call Sidén the most nuanced of artists.
Retrospectives are dress rehearsals for an artist’s place in history, and in this respect Sidén’s film about the psychotic psychiatrist Alice E. Fabian, QM, I Think I Call Her QM, is one of two pieces that stand out. The latter’s New York apartment, where she also practised, is a touchstone for Sidén’s fictional narrative. Fabian (called Dr Ruth Fielding in the piece and beautifully played by Kathleen Chalfant) lives in a state of deluded paranoia. Obsessed with surveillance, she inhabits a hub in which her only tentacles into the outside world are monitors and speaker phones. When she discovers the inexplicable QM beneath her bed, the opportunity to conduct quasi-scientific research as both inquisitor and voyeur has arrived. Dr Fielding begins to record QM’s behaviour, evaluating her as prisoner, mating object, daughter and patient in desperate attempts to rationalize her own crippling paranoia. QM has finally found her context as the overwhelming monster sprung from a psychotic mind – think Goya’s Two Men Eating from ‘The Black Paintings’ (1820–3).
Would a Course of Deprol Have Saved Van Gogh’s Ear? (1996) is the other outstanding piece. It’s a room-size installation that immerses the viewer in advertisements for anti-psychotic drugs taken from professional psychiatric journals Sidén recovered from Dr Fabian’s apartment. These pages serve up human psychology, mental illness, self-control or the Eden of ‘behavioural norms’ before pushing them through the meat grinder of cultural stereotyping at the service of selling pharmaceuticals. The arts – mime, sculpture, abstract painting, theatre and music, anxiety-ridden drawings such as those of Ben Shawn, menacing African masks – provide visual triggers for dozens of these advertisements, sometimes signalling healthy creativity but more often mania of every stripe. In the advertisement for Deprol, that provided Sidén the title for her installation, Van Gogh’s Old Man in Sorrow (On the Threshold of Eternity) (1890) is contrasted with his Farm in Wheatfield (1888) to visualize the artist’s elliptical state of mind. Whether Deprol could have helped Van Gogh’s mental health or diminished his creativity are unanswerable questions, but they are not the point. They are Deprol’s window-dressing. You don’t need to Google ‘psychotic artist’ to know that the mad artist stereotype lives on.