On trial for faking madness – as part of an artwork

Student turned her experience of breakdown into a performance piece

Stina Backer
Monday 31 August 2009 00:00
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A Swedish art student who faked psychosis and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital – all as part of an "artwork" – will today be judged on public disorder charges in a trial in Stockholm that has divided the nation.

Anna Odell, a 35-year-old graduate at the city's prestigious Konstfack art academy, staged the psychosis earlier this year for a film aimed at creating a debate about Swedish psychiatric care.

But her actions outraged the public and led to a media frenzy. She has been accused of wasting taxpayers' money and of endangering those who are genuinely ill by wasting the time of the emergency services.

In May, the day after the opening of her film, entitled in Swedish Unknown woman: 2009-349701, she was charged with fraudulent practice, raising a false alarm and resisting arrest. If she is convicted she will be forced to pay back the cost of the care she received, estimated at the equivalent of £1,000, and would face a two-year suspended sentence and additional fines.

When the story broke, few people knew that Odell's "psychosis" was in fact a carefully staged reconstruction of an actual event in her life, 14 years previously. On that occasion, after several years battling anorexia and mental health problems, she "lost it", she said, and climbed the railings of the Liljeholm bridge in central Stockholm to end her life. She was discovered by the police, handcuffed and taken to St Görans, the largest psychiatric hospital in Sweden. At the hospital she was immediately placed in restraints and repeatedly sedated – something which she has not been able to forget.

It was her experience of the "unnecessarily rough treatment of psychiatric patients" and the "continued victimisation and stigmatisation of patients with mental health issues by the health services" that inspired her "reconstruction" on 21 January this year. She first consulted a lawyer who advised her – wrongly as it turned out – that she would face no charges if she went ahead with the staged breakdown.

Odell's art academy tutors also gave their blessing to the project, although several board members at the school subsequently joined the public condemnation. The initial furore about whether Odell was right to fake her psychosis has broadened out into a debate about the value of art to society. Odell says she has no regrets, as "people have at least started to discuss the state of our mental healthcare in Sweden".

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