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Secession Presents Saskia Olde Wolbers: A Shot in the Dark
Saskia Olde Wolbers, Still from Pareidolia, 2011, Video, 12 min, Courtesy Maureen Paley, London.

VIENNA.- With her exhibition at the Secession, video artist Saskia Olde Wolbers is showing a selection of her work in Austria for the first time, including the new piece Pareidolia (2011). Since the mid-1990s, she has been developing fictional documentaries that hover somewhere between illusion and reality. Her surreally bizarre narratives are driven by a combination of dream-like imagery – meticulously handmade model worlds – and the apparent inner monologue of the voiceover in the audiobook-like soundtracks. The exhibition is on view from May 27 through August 21, 2011.

At the core of Saskia Olde Wolbers’ visual lexicon and symbolism lie water, wetness, sinking, submersion, drifting. Dipped in paint and placed in underwater tanks, Olde Wolbers lends her deserted landscapes and mysterious objects a kind of virtual life. In her semi-illustrated stories, she underlines the multiplicity of meanings, distortions, illusions and masking inherent in the language of the moving image. Although the individual elements of her video works – soundtrack and footage – follow dramaturgical processes, they are not obviously interwoven.

In her film reports, Olde Wolbers addresses the way an event can be filtered and reconstructed into altered versions of reality. She tells stories which are disconcerting not only because they focus on improbable events, but also because it often seems strange or implausible that they should be told at all: events that have yet to take place, things no one can possibly have seen. Narrators speak to us in well-meaning tones, but they are not to be trusted.

“The first-person narration in all my films stems from a fascination with people carrying a story,” says Olde Wolbers: “for example taxi drivers, war veterans and my late grandmother, who in an ever repeating monologue broadcast their personal stories.”

Three works by Sakia Olde Wolbers are on show in the Galerie at the Secession: Pareidolia (2011), Trailer (2005) and Placebo (2002).

A memorable event that allegedly took place in Japan in the 1920s serves Olde Wolbers as the basis for the fictional narrative in her new work Pareidolia (2011). Eugen Herrigel’s “Zen in the Art of Archery” was also inspired by this episode: a dramatic eye-witness account of the shooting of two arrows in absolute darkness by master archer Awa Kenzo and the splitting of the first arrow by the second. Awa then claimed that an external force or higher being had taken possession of him when shooting the arrows. Herrigel’s interpretation of traditional Japanese archery as a spiritual practice made an important contribution to the popularization of Zen in the Western world in the mid-20th century.

The artist’s interest in the impossibility of separating reality and imagination is reflected in her most recent work, where she focuses on concepts such as subjectivity, outer appearances, and belief. The title points to the need for caution where stories are involved: “pareidolia” refers to the tendency of human perception to discover meaningful pictures in random structures. While the story being told is based on an event that cannot be shown, the title alludes to the fact that story-telling is based less on exact observation or pure fiction than on illusion and deception.

Placebo (2002) is loosely based on the life of Jean-Claude Romand, a Frenchman who for eighteen years pretended to work as a doctor for the World Health Organization and who murdered his family in order to prevent his eventual exposure..

In Olde Wolbers’ video, we hear the account of a woman who regains consciousness in a hospital after a car accident. In the bed beside her lies a man in a coma. We learn that he had claimed he was married and that he worked as a surgeon in the hospital where they both now lie – and that the narrator

was his lover. When he realized that she is becoming suspicious and that his deception might be revealed, he crashed his car into a tree. The story plays with the clichés of marital unfaithfulness and the phenomenon of pseudologia fantastica, a disorder whose sufferers create an alternative life for themselves based on a structure of compulsive lying that becomes increasingly blurred with reality.

In Trailer (2005), a man watching a cinema trailer realizes that he is the illegitimate child of two former and now-forgotten movie stars who survived the crash-landing of their plane in the Amazonian jungle, where they then made their home. But it remains a mystery how their story could have become known outside the jungle. During this journey of adventure into memory, plant life appears alien and stylized, as in a dream. For the narrator, the deserted cinema becomes a gateway to his lost childhood. In this sealed-off world, nature appears manmade, while architectural space appears human. “Watching The Private Life of Plants by David Attenborough,” explains the artist, you realize that nature is so bizarre it could have easily been made up.”

In Olde Wolbers’ slowly unfolding spaces of memory submerged in paint and water, the characters and their stories reveal the inherently contradictory, fluid, and ambivalent quality of truth and fiction. They remind us that moving images are capable of totally overriding such distinctions.

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