• Sweden's news in English

Did Anna Odell's faked psychosis have any artistic merit?

Charlotte Webb · 7 Sep 2009, 15:24

Published: 07 Sep 2009 15:24 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

What is art? What is sanity? How are the mentally ill really treated by contemporary health care professionals? These are just a few of the poignant questions which remain wholly untouched by Anna Odell's 'Unkown, woman 2009-349701.'

For a piece that has generated more controversy than any other project by a Swedish art school student, the work seems to have had very little to do with art and everything to do with the artist herself.

After faking an episode of psychosis for the purposes of an art installation, the exhibition of Odell's work by the University College of Arts, Crafts and Design (and her subsequent conviction on charges of false alarm, violent resistance and fraudulent practice) have generated a plethora of divided, yet invariably hot-blooded responses. As the media frenzy begins to draw its gasping (and perhaps long overdue) final breath, it is worth taking a last glance at what—if anything—Odell's piece actually accomplished.

Works that serve to interrogate the idea of 'art' or of 'reality' through the provocation of the viewer are of course nothing new. In 1917 Michel Duchamp incensed the art world by submitting a urinal to the Society of Independent Artists exhibit and naming it Fountain. In 1928, surrealist René Magritte inscribed a painting of a pipe with the words Ceci n'est pas une pipe ('This is not a pipe') in order to question the nature of representation and of accepted reality.

Unlike her predecessors in the art world, however, Odell has done very little to efface herself in favour of the work itself and what she claims to have been its overarching concern. Nor does she seem to have a very clear idea of what that concern actually is.

An artist is under no obligation to articulate the meaning of their work and may choose to leave that elusive question hanging for the viewer to draw whatever conclusions they will from their own observations. Odell has, however, chosen to defend herself and her work in numerous press interviews through a series of seemingly poorly thought out and essentially vague assertions: in one interview she mentions the philanthropic desire to 'open up discussion about psychiatry in Sweden'.

Other motivations are more inherently narcissistic: to shed her role as a 'victim' of mental illness, to prove that she was not lying when she informed people of her past experiences as a psychiatric patient, that she was in fact forcefully restrained and medicated against her will.

All of these desires (though perhaps understandable) fall into the related categories of being redundant (yes, if you scream, spit in the face of those trying to assist you, and threaten to throw yourself off a bridge you may reasonably expect to be straitjacketed and sedated), poorly thought out (how exactly does faking a psychotic episode reverse the dynamic of power between you and the great abstract demon of 'psychiatry'?), or wholly unrelated to the work that was in fact produced.

The footage of Odell on Liljeholms bridge that January evening shows police officers utilising no greater force than was necessary to restrain an incoherent woman who seemed to pose an immediate danger to herself and a potential danger to passers by.

The fact is that the footage shown in 'Unknown, Woman' is not half as significant as what was not and could not be shown: the efforts of the doctors and nurses of the St. Göran psychiatric clinic to restrain a screaming woman, the faces that Odell, in an effort to complete her illusion, so unceremoniously (and quite literally) spat in. Also not depicted were the other acutely ill patients who waited for treatment through the hours that Odell manifested her faux psychosis.

Does the fact that the artist once suffered a mental breakdown give her license, not only to delay the treatment of these patients, but to effectively impersonate their suffering? There is certainly something inherently repugnant in the action, while, to my mind, what the health care professionals of St Göran's hospital went through that night on her behalf constitutes a direct violation. Every day, these individuals face the kinds of challenges (in the words of one orderly, the experience of having to restrain another human being is 'excruciating') of which an art student remains blissfully unaware.

Story continues below…

Inevitably, the nature of the piece (not to mention Odell's extensive engagement with the media) has muddied the distinction between art object and its creator to such a degree that any artistic value it might have had (and this is debatable) has been entirely overshadowed by the artist's own agenda.

In an interview with newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, Odell credits the media attention she has received with giving her 'a chance' as an artist, for offering her 'the possibility of a career.' While I'm sure the staff and patients of St Göran's would be delighted to hear of their role in providing the artist with her 'big break', I'm not sure that the price paid justifies the underwhelming end product. Due to the extremely limited footage of what actually took place that evening, the work also fails as a piece of social commentary or documentary: there is simply not enough material to generate any informed debate about the state of treatment of the mentally ill in Sweden.

In short: might there be problems with Swedish psychiatric care? Absolutely. But those seeking to investigate the issue further would be better advised to turn to SVT's 2008 documentary 'Berny Blue', a harrowing inside glimpse at the life of young Swedish writer, Berny Pålsson, plagued by drug addiction and an undiagnosed psychological disorder closely resembling schizophrenia. Though the piece failed to generate anywhere near the amount of media sensationalism that Odell herself has enjoyed, the suffering it depicts as a young woman plunges into the depths of a psychotic attack (with little to no help from the professionals to whom she reaches out) is not for the sake of art.

Charlotte Webb (news@thelocal.se)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

22:49 September 7, 2009 by brøklyn_bjorn
[ ' ]Did Anna Odell's faked psychosis have any artistic merit?[ ' ]

I'm going to get verbally sodomized for this but I say:


and Anna Odell's sex appeal is growing on me.
22:53 September 7, 2009 by redfish
We can start by asking why everything that might be worthy has to be called 'Art'. Is what Miss Odell did any different than what a mole does when they infiltrate an organization in order to expose them or gather information, or what political protest groups do when they infiltrate rallies from opposing groups and try to destroy them publicly?

Its never a question to us whether these people are doing art, they're not. I haven't seen her film, to know whether there's art there or not, but its not art just because she had a political cause and did a stunt to support it.

I'm more sympathetic to the girls cause and her past problems than the author here, I probably part with her more on disussions about art.
23:34 September 7, 2009 by Leo Solanka
A very well written response to a debate that in many instances has been plagued by droning referrals to a vague discussion concerning the freedom of art; a statement that fervently has been thrown out as a counter argument against individuals not appreciating either Anna Odells artefact or, indeed, her very actions; this even though there´s been no threat of censoring it.
11:48 September 9, 2009 by Keith #5083
Yes it did - but only to her.

Any artist should,of course, pay for the materials they use and in this definition this means the labour of others.

To inconvenience,disturb,provoke,beautify, the emotional sensibilities or intellectual perspectives of others has always been one of the primary functions of art.Even then it is usually an 'option' to the viewer.

In this case,however, any such noble artistic motives are sacrificed because of the sheer disregard for the integrity of others.

As a work of art,it fails. It fails not because of any potential worth of the comment but because such worth is devalued by the 'artist' herself.
11:57 September 9, 2009 by unt9
When artist says, this is art, it is art. The quality of art is another discussion.
18:20 September 9, 2009 by Aegis13
Since acting is considered an art, and she did it well enough to be admitted I think we'll have to admit it was art.

The part that bothers me most is that one person inconveniencing the staff at one hospital for one night is such a huge issue. Treatment of mental illness is not like getting stitches or being treated for a heart attack. If the patients are so short on qualified care that one unexpected case can through off the whole treatment schedule, then I agree with her activism.

The people arguing the loudest about what a horrible thing she did are the ones suggesting how badly the system needs to be changed.
01:25 September 12, 2009 by Coalbanks
What makes you think it was faked? Any denial of mental illness on her part is a symptom of mental illness as is the whole exhibitionist episode.
11:13 September 12, 2009 by conboy
At best she is a cheap publicist with nothing to say who has abused the hard working people in the emergency and psychiatric services in a worst case scenario as the previous poster has pointed out she is in need of care herself.
21:44 September 12, 2009 by Gwrhyr
Her efforts definitely backfired on her. Instead of actually looking into the care of the mentally ill in modern Swedish society (or any modern society for that matter), all the responses have just been self-righteous attacks on her. If anything it proves that there really is a problem... if society reacts so angrily to her, what do they not react angriliy too? Swedish society is not a laidback society (not very many societies are). What she did is definitely art, whether you like it or not, because it has provoked reaction. People who say it's not art are simply the kind of people who think that art is only the stuff they like or "get" easily. The angry reaction of society against her just goes to show what horrors anyone who goes against societal norms faces. I'm glad she did this, because it has taught me a bit about modern society, Swedish society, and people in general.
11:32 September 14, 2009 by flintis
Art, art students, art teachers. What is the definition of art?

Constable, Michealangelo, Rubens, etc etc each had their own ideas, but "modern" art has taken it to extremes & gone OTT along the way.

The act of Odells was no doubt encouraged by her peers to go out & express yourself, without taking into account the consequences.

Odell is guilty of wasting the time of services the population need, they do not have the time to accomodate so called "artist" performing.

It seem her goal was to acheive notoriety, so for her it was a success. I do believe she should be made to compensate for wasting valuable resources.
19:16 September 18, 2009 by Dhyana
I work in psychiatry. What I worry about in this whole affair, is the next time a desperate young person stands on a bridge or roof preparing to jump. Will the passersby or the police hesitate to rescue the person, thinking this just might be a scam, "Hello you are in candid camera, we are making art of you!"
13:15 November 6, 2009 by lensart
NO... unless, of course, you consider this comment art.
Today's headlines
Swedish photographer shot near Mosul
Hansen was being operated on in the Iraqi city of Erbil on Sunday. Photo: Nora Lorek/ TT

Paul Hansen, a photographer working for Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, has sustained light injuries after being hit by what appears to be a sniper while covering the battle for the Isis-held city of Mosul in Iraq.

Trollhättan remembers school attack victims
'It was an attack on all of Sweden,' Education Minister Gustav Fridolin said. Photo: Thomas Johansson/ TT

Hundreds of people on Saturday turned out for a torchlight procession in the small town of Trollhättan in southwestern Sweden to honour the victims of last year’s deadly school attack there.

Sweden wants emission-free cars in EU by 2030
Photo: Jessica Gow/ TT

Sweden's environment minister on Saturday urged the European Union to ban petrol and diesel-powered vehicles from 2030.

Hundreds protest Swedish asylum laws
Around 1,000 people protested in Stockholm. Photo: Fredrik Persson/ TT

Hundreds of people on Saturday demonstrated in Stockholm and in many other parts of the country to protest Sweden’s tough new laws on asylum-seekers.

Dylan removes Nobel-mention from website
The American musician has more or less responded to the news with silence. Photo: Per Wahlberg

American singer-song writer Bob Dylan has removed any mention of him being named one of this year’s Nobel Prize laureates on his official website.

Refugee crisis
Asylum requests in Sweden down by 70 percent
Sweden's migration minister Morgan Johansson. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

Sweden received 70 percent fewer requests for asylum in the period between January and September 2016 than it did during the same time last year, the country’s justice and migration minister Morgan Johansson has revealed.

The unique story of Stockholm's floating libraries
The Stockholm archipelago book boat. Photo: Roger Hill.

Writer Roger Hill details his journeys on the boats that carry books over Stockholm's waterways and to its most remote places.

Refugee crisis
Second Stockholm asylum centre fire in a week
The new incident follows a similar fire in Fagersjö last week (pictured). Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Police suspect arson in the blaze, as well as a similar incident which occurred last Sunday.

More misery for Ericsson as losses pile up
Ericsson interim CEO Jan Frykhammar presenting its third quarter results. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

The bad news just keeps coming from the Swedish telecoms giant.

Facebook 'sorry' for removing Swedish cancer video
A computer displaying Facebook's landing page. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

The social media giant had censored a video explaining how women should check for suspicious lumps in their breasts.

Sponsored Article
This is Malmö: Football capital of Sweden
Fury at plans that 'threaten the IB's survival' in Sweden
Sponsored Article
Where is the Swedish music industry heading?
Here's where it could snow in central Sweden this weekend
Analysis & Opinion
Are we just going to let half the country die?
Blog updates

6 October

10 useful hjälpverb (The Swedish Teacher) »

"Hej! I think the so-called “hjalpverb” (auxiliary verbs in English) are a good way to get…" READ »


8 July

Editor’s blog, July 8th (The Local Sweden) »

"Hej readers, It has, as always, been a bizarre, serious and hilarious week in Sweden. You…" READ »

Sponsored Article
7 reasons you should join Sweden's 'a-kassa'
Angry elk chases Swede up a lamp post
Sponsored Article
Why you should 'grab a chair' on Stockholm's tech scene
The Local Voices
'Alienation in Sweden feels better: I find myself a stranger among scores of aliens'
People-watching: October 20th
The Local Voices
A layover at Qatar airport brought this Swedish-Kenyan couple together - now they're heading for marriage
Sponsored Article
Stockholm: creating solutions to global challenges
Swede punches clown that scared his grandmother
Sponsored Article
Swedish for programmers: 'It changed my life'
Fans throw flares and enter pitch in Swedish football riot
Could Swedish blood test solve 'Making a Murderer'?
Sponsored Article
Top 7 tips to help you learn Swedish
Property of the week: Linnéstaden, Gothenburg
Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Swedish school to build gender neutral changing room
People-watching: October 14th-16th
Sponsored Article
'There was no future for me in Turkey'
Man in Sweden assaulted by clowns with broken bottle
Sponsored Article
‘Extremism can't be defeated on the battlefield alone’
Nobel Prize 2016: Literature
Sponsored Article
Stockholm: creating solutions to global challenges
Watch the man who discovered Bob Dylan react to his Nobel Prize win
Sponsored Article
Why you should 'grab a chair' on Stockholm's tech scene
Record numbers emigrating from Sweden
Sponsored Article
'There was no future for me in Turkey'
People-watching: October 12th
Sponsored Article
Where is the Swedish music industry heading?
The Local Voices
'Swedish startups should embrace newcomers' talents - there's nothing to fear'
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
How far right are the Sweden Democrats?
Property of the week: Triangeln, Malmö
Sweden unveils Europe's first elk hut
People-watching: October 7th-9th
The Local Voices
Syria's White Helmets: The Nobel Peace Prize would have meant a lot, but pulling a child from rubble is the greatest reward
Missing rune stone turns up in Sweden
Nobel Prize 2016: Chemistry
jobs available