|Reviewed by Steve Penn|
|ANN SOFI SIDÉN at the Hayward Gallery|
Imagine spending a year amongst society's conveniently forgotten. Ann-Sofi Sidén has done just this, working within a town on the border between Germany and the Czech Republic, and on the border between supply and demand. Dubi, it seems, exists almost entirely for the sex industry, with prostitutes plying their trade along an extended red light district/ highway. Sidén has been there, spoken with the girls, the clients, the pimps; seen it all and brought it to the attention of the uncaring world.
Warte Mal! (Hey wait!) is a remarkable video installation. Its imperative title refers to the cry of the prostitutes along the highway - often the only words of German they know, they cry to passing lorry drivers to attract business. Competition, it seems, is fierce in Dubi. It is also a call to the viewer to take the time to pay attention to these forgotten girls and their shunned world: the installation contains a number of interviews, most of which are around thirty minutes long. Anyone not willing to hear the cry of "Warte mal!" will learn little of Sidén's experiences.
The installation has a maze-like intricacy, with side-rooms containing booths where the interviews play back-to-back, one girl, pimp or client per booth. The red carpeting in the booths makes the viewer feel awkward, like a customer at a peep show. Many people I saw did not even enter the booths, instead choosing to read the subtitles through the Plexiglas walls. You are made to feel painfully aware of how far your inherent attitudes separate you from this world of sex for sale. Larger screens show scenes of "everyday" Czech life: a bar blaring out REM over the laughing of teenagers, a man working on a woodpile. But even then the viewer feels painfully distant- look out for the anonymous woodsman's dog, whose accusing stare makes you feel like a trespasser, ready to be hounded from private land.
The work is a great cross-section- Sidén's diaries play up a wall detailing her time in a motel where rooms are hired by the hour. The punters are shown one after another, day by day, some worrying, some entertaining. There is a voyeuristic sense of intimacy- everything is on display. One girl changes with the camera rolling, another talks about being held at knifepoint in a locked car. The interviews roll on and on, never ending. Ultimately, the viewer is never really involved in these people's lives because ultimately you pack up and walk to the next booth. But waiting for that little while is worth it, and a resource centre at the end of the work allows you to spend a little longer in the company of these supremely human characters.
Unlike so many "reality TV" shows and "video diaries", Warte Mal! has a genuine sense of honesty about it in that you are always the outsider, something Sidén acknowledges and forces you to be painfully aware of. The work is summed up in the one still picture that dominates a wall - a girl, blurred, in the snow of an anonymous forest in a country we do not know. Although you cannot hope to really understand, you feel sad to leave the girls and their clients: the outside world seems that bit bigger afterwards.
'Warte Mal! Prostitution after the Velvet Revolution' is showing at the Hayward Gallery until April. Call 020 7960 5226 or go to www.hayward.org.uk/siden for details.
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