Winner of the Baloise Art Prize 2003.
A placebo is a form of medication that contains no pharmaceuticals, yet can still have a healing effect for patients simply because they believe it works. Placebos play an important part in medical testing, but ultimately—however beneficial they may be—their effect is based on an illusion.
Pictures can also be deceptive at times, as can words. This is the premise of Saskia Olde Wolbers’s video “Placebo” (2002), from which this still is taken. Imagine you wake up from an anesthetic in intensive care. Slowly reality returns as you gaze around you. But what has happened? What is real? Who is that person standing by your bed?
In “Placebo” there are images that appear to show a deserted intensive care unit in a hospital. Everything is white. Beds, operating lights, partition walls—everything dissolves into droplets and molecular structures, like elusive memories. Then a female voice tells her story. Her lover is a married man who claimed he was a surgeon. At this precise moment she is returning to consciousness after a car accident “arranged” by her lover. But is her story really true? Is she not just confused—the surgeon, the accident—suffering the after-effects of an anesthetic? Is her mind playing tricks on her or is she deliberately lying?
The images show a hospital setting that looks more like a scene in a sci-fi movie. The shots do not illustrate the supposed sequence of events. Instead they create a bewildering atmosphere, a feeling of reality dissolving. Electronic sounds underpin the sense of unreality.
The story told here is about illusion or self-delusion; even the images that appear to connect are deceptive. One might imagine the video to be a simulation created using a computer program. And yet it is the outcome of the purest kind of craft skills. Olde Wolbers built all the items seen in the video—she created a miniature film set that she painted and then filmed underwater in real time.
“Placebo”, like any successful work of art, is ultimately deceptive. It creates a fictive world: images and a voice draw us into a scenario that we willingly go along with. Two hundred years ago the Romantic poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge had already described our readiness to fully enter into a world created by an artist—whether reading a book or gazing at a painting—as the “willing suspension of disbelief.”