Saskia Olde Wolbers: deceptive images, deceptive tales

by Edan Corkill

If only every piece of video art started with the line: “Here I am lying next to my lover Jean, in intensive care.”

While a considerable amount of video art shown at exhibitions elicits little more from viewers than blank expressions, bored shifts in shoes and plain old yawns, a line of narration like that which throws out the prospects of intrigue and debauchery would rivet them to the spot. Who wouldn’t want to know what Jean and his lover had been up to?

And sure enough, there is a relatively constant throng of people huddled in the two rooms where the work of Dutch-born, British-based video artist Saskia Olde Wolbers is currently being shown in a solo exhibition at the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi that’s concurrent with its Turner retrospective (see Re:View page). Of course, any video artist with a television set should by now have realized the importance of narrative to moving pictures. The fact is that any pastime requiring people’s undivided attention for a set period of time must come with an in-built incentive to make them sit it out till the end. Nothing does that like a good ol’ fashioned yarn.

Video artists’ avoidance of narrative, then — in favor of often unintelligible, stream-of-conscious style sequences — comes across as a somewhat snobbish attempt to distance their “high-brow” work from “low-brow” television and film. Or worse still, a cop-out. Perhaps they weren’t able to distill their jumbled visions into single photographs or paintings?

Either way, Saskia Olde Wolbers is a different story altogether. For her, the narrative is as much a part of the art as the mysterious visuals she makes to accompany them. She’s a video artist genuinely suited to her medium.

“I start my art with ideas for stories,” Wolbers explains in an interview with The Japan Times the day before her show is due to open. “I get them from anywhere — newspapers, television.”

Viewers enticed into watching the story of Jean and his lover in “Placebo” (2002) discover quickly that he is a strange man indeed. For years he has roamed the floors of a hospital, dressed in a white cloak, pretending to be a doctor.

“I had heard of phantom doctors doing their imaginary rounds through endless corridors,” explains the narrator, who we now discover is a nurse at “his” hospital and also his lover. Now, “with only a 50 percent chance of surviving our injuries” from an as yet unnamed catastrophe, she recounts how the two of them met and fell in love, and how she ultimately discovered that he was a fraud.

Wolbers got the idea for the work from the real life story of Frenchman Jean-Claude Romand, who for 18 years during the 1970s and ’80s pretended that he worked for the World Health Organization. He hid the truth even from his wife and children, concocting fake business dealings on WHO stationery that he fished from garbage bins.

“I enjoy constructing video works from situations that require a lot of imagining,” Wolbers says. With Romand that meant “trying to get inside the head of a man who spent the majority of 18 years sitting in his car in a car park.”

Once Wolbers has the idea for a new work, she immediately starts writing the script of a voice-over narration.

“I used to love watching historical documentaries,” she says. “I like the way you are seduced by the voice of the narrator.”

For a non-native speaker of English, Wolbers’ English-language scripts are not just seductive, they are poetic. The opening “intensive care” line would make a fine start to a novel. For Japanese viewers at the Mori, the works thankfully have been subtitled in Japanese, rather than paraphrased in text handouts, as is often the case at the underfunded museums in this country.

Creating visuals to match the script is Wolbers’ next task. While each work gets a completely different look (and there is one other work, “Kilowatt Dynasty,” on show at the Mori), they each involve miniature sets constructed from unlikely objects. The smallness of scale allows the artist the freedom to create the works single-handedly and, when combined with the use of unlikely objects, helps give the finished visuals a mind-bending quality appropriate to the stories they illustrate.

For “Placebo,” Wolbers created hospital wardlike rooms using fine wire that she dipped in house paint and placed in a water tank. Initially the paint covers the wire frames, creating perfectly white and smooth-surfaced rooms. The camera maneuvers through these tiny spaces at a pace as slow and methodical as the nurse-lover’s voice-over.

As Jean’s lies gradually become apparent, Wolbers slowly shakes her wire frames, causing the oily paint to gather and fall in slow drips down through the water. The result: Jean’s artificial world melts before our eyes. This denouement is accompanied by his lover’s jarring conclusion to their story: “He drove us into a tree, hoping to take me with him to a place where I could receive his love.”

Just one day after Wolbers’ exhibition opened at the Mori, newspapers around the world carried the story of Austrian Josef Fritzl, who maintained a regular life while keeping his daughter and three children he fathered by her in captivity. As with the case of WHO fraudster Romand, which spawned a number of books and television programs, it is easy to imagine that production companies will be quick to dramatize the story of the Austrian tyrant.

It would be absurd to suggest that video artists like Wolbers should compete with television or Hollywood. For one, Wolbers takes up to a year just to “develop my ideas.” But artists can bring astounding clarity to complex ideas, especially through the neat construction of verbal and visual metaphors. And if they stick to telling stories, they might just find they have a growing audience, too.

“MAM Project 007: Saskia Olde Wolbers” is on display at the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi till July 13; Open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. (Tues. till 5 p.m.); ¥1,500. For more information call (03) 5777-8600 or visit