It’s Complicated

After two feature films, Anna Odell confronts the memory of an inappropriate sexual relationship. But the shocking story is not the core of the work.

Anna Odell, Reconstruction – The Psychiatric Ward, video still, 2023.

Few contemporary artists have troubled the boundary between fact and fiction in autobiographical representations like Anna Odell. Most brilliantly in the award-winning film The Reunion from 2014, in which she confronts bullies in a re-enacted school reunion. In her new exhibition at Cecilia Hillström Gallery, she continues in the same vein, returning to the key components of autobiography as material and re-enactment as method.

The central work is a two-channel video installation, Rekonstruktion – psyket (Reconstruction, the psychiatric ward, 2024). The premise is that a young woman, while a patient in a closed psychiatric ward, began a sexual relationship with a male staff member and subsequently became pregnant. Thirty years later, the woman, named Anna Odell and played by the artist herself, revisits the incident, trying to understand the situation that arose.

It’s interesting just how difficult it is to talk about the work without confusing the Anna Odell who appears in the film with the artist Anna Odell who made the film. “But come on,” we might say, “it’s the same person! They both got pregnant!”

I have no doubt that the events depicted in the film really happened. But the extent to which the work’s status as a documentary triggers rather facile readings is impressive. In article after article, the main angle is that Odell had a relationship with her caregiver and became pregnant. This is remarkable – of course – but it is not the core of the work, as I see it. What carries the film is its examination of the actions that were and were not carried out by those working on the ward at the time. It is also a strong representation of the ways that an event can trigger a collective fear of making a mistake.

Odell mobilises several established documentary devices, including accounts of medical records, telephone interviews with those who cared for her thirty years ago, and hypothetical reconstructions of what should have happened during the meetings on the psychiatric ward where the relationship between the young woman and her male caregiver were discussed. As in her other films, it is difficult to know what we’re seeing and hearing: are these actors or are they medical professionals playing themselves? Are they following a script or are they improvising?

At the same time, we zoom in on Odell’s face as she listens to what others say about her 20-year-old self. Her face seems to guarantee the authenticity of the situation. And it’s also an image of the complicated relationship between the work and its ‘sacred’ source: the artist.

It’s difficult not to be astounded by what we learn: the orderly who initiates the relationship with the patient frames the events as a sacrifice that he made in order to help her. The fact that a member of staff had sex with a patient in a situation of dependence is also not reported by the hospital. There are members of staff who don’t remember, while others speak freely and even describe their own transgressions. And then there is the patient, who as an adult claims that the relationship with the orderly and the pregnancy helped her and that it was the most important thing that has ever happened to her. It’s complicated.

Much like Odell’s acclaimed and controversial degree exhibition at Konstfack in 2009, Unknown Woman 2009-349701, this is a critical representation of psychiatric inpatient care that opens up ethical discussions.

Unknown Woman was essentially a classic work of undercover journalism. The artist enacted a psychotic episode that she had previously experienced on Stockholm’s Liljeholmsbron in order to be admitted to a psychiatric ward and document the ensuing course of events. The aftermath was completely insane and included everything from a conviction for fraud to media debates about whether it was art and whether Odell had lied. I think anyone who saw the film felt that there were more upsetting aspects than Odell’s deception. Such as the fact that passers-by did not stop when an obviously anxious person without a coat was standing near the railing on a bridge in the middle of winter.

Anna Odell, Reconstruction – The Psychiatric Ward, video still, 2023.

Faith in autobiography as a document of truth is incomprehensibly strong, and this is what sustains Odell’s practice. Like the many debates about autofiction and literature in the past decades, her films demonstrate how difficult it is for the media to respond to a work as both fact and fiction.

It reminds me of Alexander Ahndoril’s 2006 book The Director, a work of fiction about the life of Ingmar Bergman that takes the form of a biography. The book is written in Bergman’s voice, but all the dialogue is invented. It too sparked debate in the media when it was published. Ahndoril called it “a novel.” However, he argued that his version of Ingmar Bergman’s life was at least as truthful, and in many cases more so, than Bergman’s own account. Ahndoril worked with the material for twenty years, and found that Bergman – consciously or not – lied quite freely about his life.

“The best thing is that no one outside the project will know what is true and what is fiction,” Odell says in one of the opening scenes of X & Y, her 2018 film about the characters/people Anna Odell and Michael Persbrandt, played by themselves and by actors. Rekonstruktion – psyket is less labyrinthine and more coherent in presenting how an event is constituted prismatically, through multiple perspectives.

Above all, the film shows us something simple: how difficult it is to remember, to grasp a past event.

Anna Odell, Reconstruction – The Psychiatric Ward, installation view,2023.