Be My Witness!


… is what the woman Sissi, diagnosed as schizophrenic, calls out to her psychoanalyst, right after she has revealed the cause of her troubles. Sissi was the first patient of Françoise Davoine, the analyst and main character – and actress playing herself – in the feature film A Long History of Madness. Like Freud’s Dora, Sissi dismissed Françoise, who seemed incapable of helping her. Twenty years later, and still confined to a psychiatric hospital, Sissi’s “second chance” in the shape of another analyst, slowly but surely allows her to reach into her deepest darkest self. The analyst, this time, is not afraid of putting herself on the line, an identification that allows the unattainable memories to come to the surface.

In Western culture, “madness”, or what is called by a variety of medicalising labels, psychosis, schizophrenia, sociopathology and the likes, remains the last frontier, the form of otherness that is hardest to deal with. Madness is not confined to groups of ethnic, sexual, age- or racial definition. Perhaps it is because we cannot define and then relegate it to elsewhere, it is so difficult to overcome the boundary that separates the mad from the allegedly sane, thus leaving them to social ostracism and loneliness. Yet, frequently, the alleged madness expresses itself in a surplus: hearing more voices than the sane, the mad have a richer psychic life.

For Sissi, this surplus takes the form of her imperial demeanour: she thinks she is (like) her namesake, the empress of Austria-Hungary. She spends time and money to dress and coif accordingly, wear extravagant albeit non-precious jewellery, and talks from high-up to her analyst. And it is because the latter is able to see how, in fact, Sissi “treats” her as much as the other way around that Sissi is enabled to reach into her darkest past.

Between art and its viewers, something of the same order is possible. The video piece Eine zweite Chance takes the viewer trough twelve analytical sessions that reshape psychoanalysis itself, making the theory effective in addressing madness thanks to an extreme identification and equality. It also offers such attitude for consideration to the viewer of art, enabled, equally, to learn to accept the enrichment otherness can bring, and thus endorse the role of witness. In a shorter, silent video, Sissi Outside, Sissi is shown in her environment outside, on the historic island of Seili (Sjalö) where a Foucault-type leprosy colony transformed into an asylum for the insane, forms the backdrop of confinement. The land and its histories are also witnesses. The exhibit Sissi’s Skins consists of a few of the dresses and jewellery Sissi wears in the video. In one sense, these objects erase the strict boundary between fiction and documentary. For, they are real, and wearable. In another sense, these are her closest witnesses; objects that were with her, like a second skin; and through the dignity they confer upon her, they protect her against renewed assault.

Sissi Outside by Mieke Bal and Michelle Williams Gamaker

The video works by Mieke Bal abd Michelle Williams Gamaker are related to the feature film, A Long History of Madness, on view at Topkino from May 12 to 19.

BE MY WITNESS! is part of „NARRATION UND MIGRATION – Art-based Research / Research-based Art”, that takes place in Vienna from May 8 to 26 in cooperation with tfm | Institut für Theater-, Film- und Medienwissenschaft, Brunnenpassage and Topkino.

Mieke Bal (1946), a cultural theorist and critic, is Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences Professor (KNAW). She is based at the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA), University of Amsterdam. Her areas of interest range from biblical and classical antiquity to 17th century and contemporary art and modern literature, feminism and migratory culture. Her thirty books include A Mieke Bal Reader (2006), Travelling Concepts in the Humanities (2002) and Narratology (3d edition 2009). Mieke Bal is also a video-artist, her experimental documentaries on migration include A Thousand and One Days; Colony and the installation Nothing is Missing. Her work is exhibited internationally. Occasionally she acts as an independent curator.

Michelle Williams Gamaker (1979) is a video artist and writer. Her work varies from single frame portraits and installations to complex renderings of reality via documentary and fiction. The subtle and sublime potential of storytelling through the everyday is at the root of her work. Her video work was first recognised in 2001 at the Bloomberg New Contemporaries. Since then she has exhibited internationally; her documentaries include Elizabitch (2004), All About Évike (2005), Colony (2006) and Becoming Vera (2007).

Michelle Williams Gamaker is currently based in Amsterdam and London where she finished her PhD in Visual Arts at Goldsmiths College, she also teaches part-time on the MFA Art Practice at Goldsmiths.

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