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“Undertow: Annee Olofsson & Shizuka Yokomizo”

At Fusebox to Dec. 15

“Annee Olofsson”

At the Embassy of Sweden to Dec. 13

The history-capping endgame maneuvers of the avant garde are often beginnings in their own right, opening up new subgenres where it was thought none could follow. The stream of Duchampian ready-mades, which runs all the way through modernism and on into the present day, shows no sign of drying up. And Yves Klein’s 1958 exhibition of an empty gallery ought to have been an artistic cul-de-sac. But as Roberta Smith recently noted, it produced not only a contrary reaction from fellow Nouveau Realiste Arman, who loaded the same space with garbage, but responses in kind from later artists such as Michael Asher and David Hammons.

As new forms emerge, fundamental meanings often attach themselves, sometimes permanently. Vito Acconci’s Following Piece (1969), in which he tailed passers-by through the streets of New York, recurred as Sophie Calle’s Suite Venitienne, for which she followed a man to Venice in 1980, and ultimately prefigured the central plot device of Christopher Nolan’s 1998 film Following, set in London. Though the prevailing mood differs according to locale, in each work the vulnerability of the pursued comes to rest in the pursuer, as the decision to follow causes a person to be easily led.

So it can hardly be unanticipated that a performance in which an artist submits her naked body to a frigid environment comes with a decades-old precedent that shapes its interpretation. In Cold, a 1999 video on view at Fusebox, Swedish photographer (and part-time New Yorker) Annee Olofsson is seen from the shoulders up, standing wind-whipped by the Baltic in 5-degree temperatures. The piece looks back to performances by Yugoslavia-born endurance-art pioneer Marina Abramovi«c, who had a “Directions” show at the Hirshhorn early this year and last week completed a 12-day public fast at the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York. The end of Abramovi«c’s 1975 performance Thomas Lips, for example, came when members of the audience removed the ice blocks on which she had been lying for 30 minutes. In the work of both artists, physical pain and numbness are literalizations of emotional suffering and distance.

And both women encourage us to view their oeuvres as attempts to come to grips with the trauma of having fathers who—in the time-honored European fashion—constituted forbidding, formidable presences in the lives of their daughters. Olofsson is most explicit about the fraught paternal connection in several photographs selected for a six-piece hanging now on view at the Swedish Embassy. In one of the Unfamiliar pictures from 2001, her face is uncomfortably straddled, her eyes obscured, by an outstretched, wedding-banded, French-cuffed male hand. This older man—part Creator, part Svengali, part undertaker—is, as we learn from the catalog to a recent Marianne Boesky Gallery show, Olofsson’s father. For 2002’s Skinned series, Olofsson faces away from the camera as he, otherwise unseen behind her, runs his hands under her off-white body stocking or up over her ears. He’s a man who, Cole Porter would say, has gotten under her skin or, as Rodgers and Hammerstein might have it, needs to be washed right outta her hair.

The musical allusions are anything but coincidental. The Thrill Is Gone (2002), a video projected opposite Cold at Fusebox, puts the B.B. King reference right up front, even though the three-minute piece is silent. Wearing a black T-shirt and backgrounded by a starless February sky, Olofsson stands, head tipped back, impassively viewing a brief private fireworks display, which we see only as sparks reflected in her jet-black, full-eye contact lenses. She blinks slowly. We’re instructed that she’s unmoved, but there’s something awe-inspiring about the tiny suns going supernova in the black cavern of her skull. Perhaps I’m incapable of feeling cynical about fireworks, simply on formal grounds. They’re a nearly ideal art form, simultaneously creative and destructive, evanescent and yet unforgettable, if only because each perfect blast, as it dies, reinforces all the others in the mind’s eye.

Olofsson’s piece is supposed to be about the death of feeling, the state of being inured to celebration, particularly that of the more spectacular sort, but I draw from her unreadable gaze simply a rarefied reaction to beauty: placid, alien, and beatific. If Abramovi«c is always quixotically striving to close the communication gap, Olofsson seems almost to treasure her torment, as if its abating would make her less the artist. Besides making it terribly jarring when the viewer’s reaction runs counter to her intention, this is simply a rather outdated stance. NU: The Nordic Art Review editor John Peter Nilsson, who kicks off the introduction to the Boesky catalog by declaring, “There are few artists I’ve met that are as intense as Annee,” does Olofsson no favors when elsewhere he relates an almost self-parodically Bergmanesque 1996 interview quote:

“I have an unbelievable anxiety about death. I can get absolutely desperate and hopeless about the idea of dying. It is something that is always there in me. It runs very deep in me. I see no point in anything. Everything is meaningless. I feel like all the young people who are growing up today, who have no aim, no meaning in life. But I don’t think about suicide, rather I try to live with the anxiety…”

Geez, what ever happened to having a good run and leaving it at that? For that matter, what ever happened to Paxil? I didn’t buy this sort of rhetoric when it came from Sartre or Kurt Cobain, and I’m not about to start now.

The trouble is that Olofsson is an artist whose “is” is much better than her “about.” Her style and subject matter consistently surpass her content. If you’re satisfied to let Cold remain in the realm of the physical—and I fail to see why that isn’t enough—you may find it one of the most moving, even harrowing things you’ll see all year. This time, the artist’s contact lenses are ice-blue and of a normal size. As scant snowflakes alight on her hair and turn to sluggish beads of water, she struggles to retain her composure, blinking, knitting her brow, slipping away from us, then refocusing her concentration and swallowing hard. Her jaw slackens, her lips parting, then it tightens as she braces herself. If you can force yourself to watch, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the drama that plays across her features. Fifteen minutes on, her left eye at last lets go a tear, and the piece is over.

It’s pointless to protest that Olofsson’s anguish is something the artist chose, a pose she adopted, because her decidedness is precisely what the piece is about. I’m relatively unmoved by Olofsson’s existentialist adaptation of Abramovi«c’s guiding metaphor. But I’m riveted by the battle she has staged between the elements and her will.

At Fusebox, Olofsson is paired with Japan-born, London-based photographer Shizuka Yokomizo, who is best known for Strangers, a continuing series of portraits of inhabitants of ground-floor apartments. Each subject has accepted the terms of an agreement, slid under her door by the artist, that stipulates that the two participants in the artistic exchange will remain unknown to one another. The recipient of the proposal then stages a small endurance performance of her own (none of Yokomizo’s pictures of men are included), appearing alone at her window at the appointed hour and staring into the camera outside for 10 minutes. (If you don’t think this is a long time, not just to stand stock-still, but also to keep from looking away, give it a try. After less than eight minutes, I was seized by the urge to whip around and glance at the kitchen timer; shortly thereafter, I found myself beaming it silent pleas.)

Despite the rigidly prescribed format of the pictures, the subjects now on display (all shot in 2000) project, with their persons and their surroundings, a range of attitudes. A young Japanese woman in a striped jumper, a diffident type who protects the armrests of a favorite chair with frilly-ended covers and doesn’t remove the sticker from her computer monitor after she takes it out of the box, holds herself as if conforming to a composition she’s in no position to judge. A white woman, wary and grim, peers out from the yellow light, as a photo of Toni Morrison—is it?—hovers over her shoulder like an icon of solidarity and fortitude. An older white woman with an indulgent expression, secure in her body and her age and tough enough not to feel threatened by the situation, adopts the same comfortable, no-bullshit posture she doubtless carries through life. Still, the question remains: How much of what and whom we see is corrupted by the bargain of being seen?

In other series, Yokomizo appears as a kind of anti-Nan Goldin, shooting the people she’s close to but revealing little of consequence. Four untitled pictures from this year show friends striking self-consciously contemplative poses. One stares at her reflection in a darkened window; another gazes rapt into an open refrigerator as she cradles an almost empty bottle on her hip. An adjustable desk lamp scrutinizes the legs of a woman as she rests them on her duvet.

In the last picture, a young person lies back on the bed in a darkened room, arm cocked to chest, spotlighted through the window. Yokomizo undermines the supposed expressiveness of portrait photography, implying that even when lost in thought amid comfortable surroundings, people find it hard to be themselves when they’re on display.

The incapability of photography to peer beneath the veil of self-composure is asserted again in two pictures from 1995’s Sleeping series, in which Yokomizo captured her friends while they were asleep. It’s dark, of course, and unless you were already familiar with the patterns on the subjects’ nightclothes and bed linens, you’d never be able to figure out who they were, much less what was on their minds. The other paradox is that though slumber finds a person unguarded, it’s a state that reveals more about the physiology than the psychology of the sleeper (even when the scene is well-lit, as viewers familiar with the sleep studies of the late Ted Spagna will recall). This is especially true of strangers, which the photographer’s friends remain to us. Here, as in Yokomizo’s other photographs, the distance between people is a curious, perhaps even unbridgeable thing—but it’s hardly a devastating one. CP