BY Marcus Verhagen in Features | 11 NOV 04
Featured in
Issue 87

Saskia Olde Wolbers

She is a mightly fabulist, an artist who creates vast and lanyrinthine worlds which she uses as settings for miasmic tales of longing and delusion

BY Marcus Verhagen in Features | 11 NOV 04

With their quizzical voice-overs and looping storylines, Saskia Olde Wolbers’ videos are set in the bowels of large institutions; the camera pans slowly over waterlogged halls and passages, along pipes and cables, in and out of empty rooms with translucent, faintly glowing walls. As we watch, we hear narrators speak of mistaken identities, ill-fated affairs and demented ambitions.
It takes Olde Wolbers – a London-based Dutch artist – a year to make each piece. And no wonder: her texts are manically inventive but tightly written, and her sets, which look at first sight like the backdrops to Hollywood sci-fi productions, are in fact intricate models, made in the studio out of materials such as plastic bottles and hamster cages and often shot underwater in a paddling pool.
Many of Olde Wolbers’ narratives are based on news items. Her last two works, Placebo (2002) and Interloper (2003), for instance, were loosely inspired by the life of Jean-Claude Romand, a pathological impostor who for 18 years pretended to family and friends that he was a successful doctor before going on a killing spree in 1993, when his fabrications threatened to unravel. In Placebo a woman wakes up in a hospital after a car crash and looks back over her relationship with the man who lies comatose in the next bed. He had told her that he was a surgeon, and that he worked in the very hospital where they both now lie. When she suspected otherwise and questioned him, he deliberately crashed the car he was driving into a tree, critically injuring them both. As she tells their story, we see a white room submerged in water, large globules of emulsion slowly detaching themselves from the walls and drifting across the screen.
In Interloper, the companion piece to Placebo, the woman’s lover picks up the thread. He floats away from his own body
(‘I heard about this … a near-death experience… no need to panic’) and wanders around the hospital. He learns from a woman in a lab coat that he was one of a number of child prodigies who were raised in the hospital basement as part of an experiment in social engineering. Later, after returning to his ward, he assists his lover, who has just given birth. The baby, who looks just like him, may be his child, but the script also suggests another possibility: the narrator may have witnessed his own birth – after all, he is a man of several identities. And as the narrative moves backwards from near-death to childhood and then to birth, we see another hospital room, silver-tinted this time. We follow scores of pipes as they course along service shafts and see silver-glazed bubbles traverse an operating theatre before the screen is filled with entwined silver-coloured tendrils that resemble magnified molecular structures.
We pass from visions of the speaker’s surroundings to internal views of the body and barely notice the shift; what with the wooziness of the script, the slow camera movements and monochromatic props, the transition from external to internal views seems oddly natural. In visual terms the molecular chains are a variation on the pipes we saw earlier, which could be read as veins and arteries. This blurring of the division between the worlds within and without just confirms what the narrator has been suggesting all along: that he can no longer distinguish between his experiences and his imaginings. And it traps the viewer in the same amorphous, deeply claustrophobic sphere, in which there is no telling whether a view is seen, remembered or hallucinated. As in Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s film from 1979, the physical environment in Olde Wolbers’ work is both a terrain to be navigated and the projection of secret fears and obsessions. For all we know, her figures may be wandering around the hinterlands of their own clouded minds.
In other pieces too the artist follows characters who slowly lose their grip on reality in outlandish settings that come to reflect their derangement. In Day-Glo (1999) Luis, an Andalucian entrepreneur, creates a virtual reality theme park in which visitors can relive their memories, but his wife leaves him for a younger incarnation, another Luis whom she meets in the park. In Kilowatt Dynasty (2000) a woman narrates a meeting that is to take place in 17 years’ time. Her future mother, the presenter of a teleshopping programme, will be taken hostage by her father-to-be, an eco-warrior, in an underwater television studio – a marshy web of transparent chambers and gangways – behind the newly completed Three Gorges Dam. Here, as in Placebo, the aqueous setting reminds us that in Olde Wolbers’ world identity is fluid and indeterminate, and fictions tend to seep out of their frames and swamp ordinary perception.
These videos ask to be read on two different levels: they are both grimly witty visions of a dysfunctional hyper-modernity and stuttering journeys across mined internal landscapes. And inasmuch as viewers hesitate between the two readings, they are effectively caught in the same bind as Olde Wolbers’ sleep-talking narrators.