Author: Shamim Momin
EMERGE monograph 'Sue de Beer', 2005
reprinted in ARTREVIEW, May / June 2005
Come Back to Me: Making Your Amends (to the Dead)
The beginning of a new desire is the beginning of a new wish,
the beginning of a new sadness.
In your room, where time stands still, or moves at your will
Will you let the morning come soon? Or will you leave me lying here?
In your favorite darkness, your favorite half-light
Your favorite consciousness, your favorite slave
In your room, where souls disappear, only you exist here
I'm hanging on your words, living on your breath, feeling with your skin
Will I always be here?
- DEPECHE MODE, "In Your Room," 1993
The year 1998 saw the release of an underrated, noir-inspired film titled Dark City. Misinterpreted as a kind of actionless attempt at a Matrix-type world simulacrum, the poetry of its cinematic spatial psychology was lost on many, both critics and viewers alike. Our world, we discover, is controlled - built, even - by a race of corpselike, bowler-hatted "gentlemen" who glide (literally, as they have no visible ambulation) through a terrifying project of reorganizing the world each day, for no greater purpose than experimentation. The narrative is intercut with stylized shots of the city (the only daylight images, since all human interaction takes place at night, in darkness) shifting and swelling and morphing, the buildings growing or crumbling, Rubik's Cube-planes reconfiguring themselves, people's surroundings transforming into new lives and identities. People, their physical beings, remain, but their lives, memories, relationships, and desires are entirely reassembled at daybreak. The problem is the vestigial memories and recognitions that get layered in everyone's mind, despite the otherworldly erasure of identity, and how they infect each day. The confluence between the literal shifting of forms in space and the new worlds' traces and glimpses of the ones buried beneath them becomes a metaphor of time and memory, a lyrically stylized representation of the way the things that we as humans believe to be true and accurate in life may always be merely subject to the way we woke up that day, the slip-shift that happened in the night, in time.
Sue de Beer's work of the past decade has repeatedly tuned to this intermingling, even reciprocity, between identity construction and space, both literal and psychological, and its contingent shaping of memory and time. She often focuses on moments of rupture, emotional extremes that are true enough, deep enough, terrifying enough, to trouble any seamless, linear retelling of a life; yet she positions these vulnerable states of being within tightly framed stages, rigorously formal parameters that allow the ideas and emotions in the piece to extend out as far as they need go - a kind of structural anchor to an endeavor inherently unstable. De Beer's early photographs, and in particular her videos and attendant installations, vibrate with that tension of form and feeling, less a fight than a necessary, uneasy synthesis.
De Beer's examination of space as a metaphor for psychological interiority traces back to her earliest work. Operating within strict parameters of color, form, and content, photographs such as Door with Mirror (2000) map an architectural structure as a translation of a psychological space. The careful staging of the minimal components - a mirror, a door, a light switch - throws every detail into sharp relief. Unconnected, unhinged, the door leans anthropomorphically against the wall. The reduced palette, and slight adjustments of the light, push toward a neutrality that turns generic ugliness into a kind of Holiday Inn-sublime. The precision of the visual structure gives the image a near-sculptural reality, a theatrical organization that holds its imminent action tensely within. The artist calls this "the structure of the idea."
De Beer draws on a long history of mapping the body into architectural space, from the classical Greek and Renaissance practices of anthropomorphizing architectural elements to the more recent constructions of space as a literalization of psychology often seen in cinema. A recurrent theme in her work is the viewer's empathy with private spaces familiar to all of us - places of both comfort and terror. There may be nothing quite so personal, specific, and psychologically fraught, for example, as a teenager's bedroom. In the photographs Bed and Bed2 (2000 and 2001), as in Door with Mirror, presence is so strongly suggested that no actual body is required. The stain of what appears to be blood on the ceiling in Bed implies the aftermath of horrific violence; the same sense of loss persists in Bed2. To represent the figure in these spaces would be redundant - what is unheimlich about them is the combination of their phenomenological normalcy and the vibration of the absent figure embodied in them.
De Beer's treatments of the figure, meanwhile, were equally discomfiting. A seminal early video, Making Out with Myself (1997), maps the artist into the scene, kissing her own twinned face. As in the photographs, the simple, careful visual construction makes it clear that vestiges of imperfections are intentional, the slight awkwardness of the technique limning the sincerity and discomfort of the action. A slightly later series of photographs pushes discomfort to the extreme, depicting often gruesome scenes of physical violence that are observed by the blasé, almost tender gaze of the violated subject. In one untitled image a woman, unabashedly facing the viewer, has been cleft from sternum to crotch yet seems almost beatifically unperturbed. Once the moment of transgressive shock has passed, the artificiality of the image becomes patently clear, opening up a sense that the violence is both critical and beside the point - that it functions to open up a different discourse. De Beer has discussed these images in terms of a physical interaction: "It was talking about sculpture for me, this real experience/fake experience, when the two are happening simultaneously." The photograph's content engages an immediate, visceral reaction that is then mitigated by the nature of the image as a blatant construct: it is "a fantasy image because it's so completely fake and why, then, would someone fantasize that?" Foregrounding their near phenomenological presence in space for the viewer and the tight, formal qualities of their composition, these photographs began to approach what the artist has called a "sculptural experience." At the same time, in a move recalling literary innovators such as Dennis Cooper, or the way horror films manifest psychosexual tensions in the viscerally repulsive, the invasive act becomes an expression of intimacy, even love. The deep human impulse to gain access to what one desires can often effect its destruction.
The immersion of de Beer and other artists of her generation in the violent, the morbid, the dark, often through popular culture, draws on the exploration of abjection in the art of the early '90s but is critically distinct from it. While the earlier moment focused on the overlooked and the pathetic, the contemporary address of popular media and culture does not strive to "heal a split" between the repressed cultural self and the natural, or between the vulgar theatrics of daily life and the exalted purity of high art. Fearlessly engaging content thought difficult or even sensational, de Beer explores the possibility that ambiguity, beauty, sincerity, terror, and perversity might combine to convey life's most precious moments. She avoids the trap of sensationalist entertainment through formal rigor, a stripping down of unnecessary content, and an insistent staging of her images as constructs. Instead of assuming a privileged viewpoint on the referents she incorporates, she reflects the internalized position of contemporary popular culture. The hierarchical investigation/deconstruction that was the basis of Pop art is no longer even the question; like others of her generation, de Beer seamlessly incorporates all cultural forms on their own terms. Horror movie tropes can speak as eloquently of fear and repression as can Freud, the sublime is as present in an awkward kiss between teenagers as in the romantic landscape, the psychological mapping of architecture might appear in a classical Greek theater, a modernist translation of the repressed body, or a teenager's bedroom plastered with heavy metal posters and littered with bottles of pink nail polish. De Beer strives to locate meaning, which is always fundamentally personal, through an endlessly mediated world.
It's like glass, when we break
I can't stay in this place
I can't stand when the room turns round on my fate
- LOVE SPIT LOVE, "AM I WRONG"
Manifestations of individual identity have remained critical to de Beer's practice, but later work - such as Hans & Grete (2002), her first major two-channel video - receded somewhat from immediacy and direct engagement with a personal psychological interior. Borrowing from the extreme aesthetics of horror films, the sumptuous visuality of high-definition video games, and the fatalistic credos of adolescence, Hans & Grete revels in artifice without sacrificing emotional intensity. The narrative maps two pairs of teenagers, their agonies of self-determination expressed through both harmless desires for fame and violent enactments of powerlessness. With its types of personality and codes of conduct that betray sincere but painfully conflicted desires for connection, the maelstrom of adolescent contradiction becomes the ideal arena in which to explore human complexities. As the artist describes it,
This early engagement with "teenageness" started simply because I was trying to get to something really vulnerable . . . something that felt real to me that comes to the surface. Adulthood can be about veiling and armor of a different kind. Teenageness, well, if the kid is wearing armor, it looks like this: "I AM WEARING ARMOR SO YOU CANT HURT ME."
Neither an exploitation of our youth-driven consumer culture nor a childish or escapist regression, de Beer's explorations of this moment of development access both her own personal history and, more abstractly, the fluid state of being that adolescence embodies. Adolescence is an open realm of possibility for the creation of self: awkwardness and antagonism, resistance and desperation for structure, violence and vulnerability, vision and self-destructiveness.
The fractured enclosures of the teenagers' bedrooms in Hans & Grete are zones of both safety and of confinement. Despite the explicitness of the sex scene early in the piece, the four protagonists never interact in any way that feels truly intimate; they dress in carefully constructed costumes to represent their allegiances, they mimic their heroes in private, sometimes they fuck, but mostly they talk on and on to no one, to the camera, to us, expressing the elaborate irrational dreams of a teenage mind, trying to say something real to someone, but in essence talking only to themselves and, painfully, still get it wrong. Tenderly exploring the protagonists' alienation, the individual monologues have a poetic lyricism, yet there is a distance to their emotive intensity. A minor but illustrative example is the names: in all de Beer's later projects she uses her actors' real names, letting them exist to a degree as themselves, but in Hans & Grete the names are invented - parts for the actors to play. This explicit artificiality is maintained throughout the video in both the sets and the characters, who ultimately become ciphers of themselves.
This moment in de Beer's work ultimately leans toward developing a structure of investigation, a framing of the subject that establishes a distance from the immediacy of the personal. The resonance of the literal interior spaces - most significantly, the bedroom, and other recognizable arenas of adolescent formation and transgression, as well as of the violent violation of the living body - necessarily slid toward being outside the subject itself. At the same time, in terms of content, palette, and narrative the rigorous rules of the early photographs loosened up, even while the foundational structure remained compositionally tight (each frame of the video might be rendered as a perfectly constructed still itself). There is a new sense of pleasure in the aesthetic baroque. As the artist says, "Making Hans & Grete, I freaked out and totally enjoyed myself. The video looks like Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory on crack."
The future is an infinite succession of presents...
De Beer's three most recent videos - The Dark Hearts (2003-04), Disappear Here (2004), and Black Sun (2005) - retain the precise staging she developed earlier but allow a space within which the utterly personal can be reinserted. It is not a return to an earlier approach but a refinement of one, designed to achieve "both more structure and more complication - an expanded world." The focus on mediated becoming and identity in the early figurative photos and Hans & Grete turns toward internal transformation and history, still situated and staged through a psychologically fraught construction of space. While The Dark Hearts and Disappear Here are discrete works in their own right, they can also be read as "studies" for critical paths brought together in the more elaborate format of Black Sun.
The short The Dark Hearts depicts a teen sneaking out of the house to meet the object of her affection - a familiar adolescent narrative. Julian draws in his notebook and moves restlessly around on his bed, while Mimi stands in her space, both aggressively confident and slightly awkward in the image, the body, that she presents to the cinematic frame as if to a mirror reflecting herself or perhaps us. The setup is familiar from Hans & Grete, where the characters are introduced by an intertitle and a clip of them in their bedroom, a typically referent-laden set in which identity is indistinguishable from the spatial construction and the actors' movement within it. Unlike the characters in Hans & Grete, however, Julian and Mimi transcend the barriers they've constructed for themselves. Where the earlier work exhibited a sense of blunted exchange, a desire to reach toward the other person, and the world, that is at the same time out of step with them, the exuberant freedom of the characters in The Dark Hearts culminates in the first moment of true exchange in de Beer's videos. Leaving her room, Mimi drives her pink Mustang to Julian's house and takes him out for a spin. The camera lingers on the car's grille, the image of the galloping horse an inexhaustible symbol of liberty and individuality. More obliquely, the stallion suggests the less-discussed association of young girls and horses (a common feature of "young adult" fiction targeted to girls, for example), the inchoately sexual nature of that relationship, and the early understanding it brings of power, freedom, and fear. This reading is underscored by the pervasive strength of the feminine in the work: Mimi's bedroom, embodiment of her confidence, is emphatically pink; she, not Julian, drives a car, also pink; she seems to be a little older than he is, and to be slightly the leader in their interaction. Though mutual, the exchange of necklaces before their poignant kiss is instigated by Mimi, and the necklace, of course, is a feminine object itself.
The actual kiss resonates truthfully, slipping between the "acting" of a kiss by teenagers and the actual exchange of one. But this intimate moment reaches its real consummation a moment later, when Mimi reaches over and tucks an errant lock of Julian's skater's swag of black hair behind his ear. Significantly, it is in this near-silent, dialogue-free work of de Beer's that language ceases to trip up communication, and that what the artist calls "a sense of aliveness and presentness" allows a real connection to take place. There is a hovering fragility to the encounter, as if one deviation from the tiny cues of the teenagers' interaction might cause the whole thing to collapse. The final kiss feels like an exhalation of breath that you didn't know you were holding. Clearly communication can and will fail repeatedly; it's not success that is striven for but the possibility of it, and beauty resides in the resilience of the continued attempt. The search for the deepest intimacy, in other works explored through a literal piecing out of the interiority of the self, thrums as powerfully as a body split open in the simplicity of this encounter. Near-platonic, Mimi's and Julian's kiss avoids the trap of fetishizing sexual nostalgia, producing instead the sense of "too-muchness" that is the hallmark of formative moments, when the real occupies a space not parallel to the measurement of time.
Hans & Grete is shown in an installation resembling the sets on-screen - a device that refuses the kind of dissolution of self in the cinema that a movie theater encourages. The installation approximates a teen bedroom, with shag rug, stylized sculptures of guitars and amps, and enormous stuffed animals on which we recline to watch the piece. These props encourage an awareness of space (both within and beyond the video), and of our own relationship to it. Similarly, to view The Dark Hearts we sit in a replica of the patently artificial Mustang that Mimi drives in the video. The car exists not as some kind of diorama but as a sculptural object, meticulously fabricated but deliberately imperfect, with silkscreened front grille, glossy pink paint, open wheel well, and an interior lined with green Astroturf and complete with silkscreened Misfits lunchbox mounted on the dashboard. We can open the door, climb in, adjust the seats; but our pleasure in this playacting allows for a gleeful awareness of the set's fakery. Perhaps, like the memory of a kiss (implicitly a first kiss) that the video may spark, accuracy matters less here than the recollection of being in that particular emotional place. We are in the piece but outside it at the same time.
YOU DON'T LIVE THERE ANYMORE
The first intercut image in the short video Disappear Here presents a sheet cake, as from a child's birthday party, showing the sentence "The recollection is a cascade of spatial metaphors" in frosting. (The phrase neatly summarizes a conceptual thread tying together all of de Beer's work.) A teenage girl enters her bedroom. She is wearing a Girl Scout uniform that seems at first sweet, then - as she gets ready for something before the mirror - confining, too small. The props of her transformation include a cigarette and studded leather bracelets, anachronistic accessories that imply the multiple roles she is playing, outgrowing some but not yet comfortable in the next. Her awkward, semisexual "performance" before the mirror, and the viewer, enhances this suggestion. The girl sets up a tripod and takes a Polaroid of herself. In the video's last, silent moments, we watch the image develop on a split screen - though we may as well have watched it fade away: we are acutely aware that at this moment the girl is no more that image than she will be years later when she finds it buried in a drawer. Voyeurism, directly confronted, is mitigated, in the same way that the narcissism of the girl's youthful moment plays against her discomfort with herself.
Meanwhile a voiceover in what we assume to be the girl's voice describes a school field trip in the third grade. The memory is precise in its banal details ("a gray lighthouse that Chris Cortland says his Dad bought for a dollar last year") and sweeping in the dramatic poetics of youth ("Mrs. Pearson's classroom becomes a dead space in my memory . . . and all I feel is just the darkness of the water"). Sliding from internal recollection to performance, the scene cuts to the girl's face, which traverses the split screen, and we see her speaking the monologue. For her this may be a mirrored moment, the teenage girl articulating her own existence, defining herself through the traces of her memory and image; for us it may be external proof of who she is, and of how she might begin to form desire and sexuality of her own. The moment, still largely innocent and unself-conscious, is troubled by brief close-ups of body parts: her slim leg as it emerges from the short Girl Scout skirt, her long sleek hair curling against her bodice, her braceleted wrist held awkwardly behind her back. As in much of de Beer's work, the viewer's relationship to voyeurism remains in question. Are we understanding the origin of this fetishization, the complicity that we all have in creating it (including the girl herself, posing for us, for the camera, for her own reflection), even as we continue to produce it? This notion of feminine desire and display as foundational to the formation of identity will become the conceptual center of Black Sun.
In Disappear Here the teenager thinks back nostalgically to what she sees as a moment of purity. The innocence of the memory calls attention to the complex signifiers of the set and costume: the intense pinks of the slick satin pillow; the messy dresser littered with nail polish, makeup, and stickers; the Girl Scout uniform that seems first sweet and then too small, in tension with the cigarette and leather bracelets that show its wearer outgrowing the parts chosen for her, beginning to find her own part to play in the recognition of her realness, her presence. "I turn around once more to watch the sailboat [cloud] melt and reappear as a mouse on stilts," she recites, demonstrating the acute awareness of a moment of self-identification, "and for a second I know that everything's gonna be fine, I know I'm gonna be okay cause I'm watching it happen."
The recitation of the memory is always malleable. The photograph that is the final image of Disappear Here brings to mind Roland Barthes's idea of the photograph's "structural autonomy" as the crucial quality of the medium. Even though the photograph is clearly not identical to the reality it shows, Barthes writes, there is no transformation from reality to image; instead there is "a certainty that such a thing had existed: not a question of exactitude, but of reality." It has been argued that with the advent of digital imaging, and its destruction of the evidentiary role of photography (Barthes's "analogon," the "has-been-there" quality), the viewer's trust must necessarily shift from image to source. Power now lies not in the image itself but with the party who offers it. Disappear Here suggests that power has never been anywhere but with that party - that the "has-been-there" quality of the photograph is never more than a specter, a ghost of memory. As Douglas Crimp puts it, "In our time the aura has become only a presence, which is to say a ghost." These metaphors of death resonate with the often used (indeed seemingly inevitable) rhetoric of the undead in relation to photography, with its present that is not the present, that is defined by its absence, but that the digital era takes to a new level in which it may not have been.
De Beer, of course, makes no attempt to be a trusted source; she always reveals the artificiality of her objects, sets, and scenes, in order to emphasize the meanings they evoke. She is not interested in the falsely immersive state of conventional cinema, "another world" that offers escape from this one. Instead she provokes in the viewer a critical awareness of the simultaneous existence of both the fictional space and the actual one. Just as she fractures the screen to avoid a singular viewpoint, the stylizations and imperfections of her sculptural objects forestall passive immersion. The experience is incomplete - fractured, ruptured - without the active participation of viewer to understand it as such. A sentence in the last monologue in Black Sun contains this notion perfectly: "Things can't hold things."
BLACK SUN, OR GIRL WHO LIVES ON HEAVEN HILL
Barthes's discussion in Camera Lucida of Pliny's myth of the origin of painting perfectly fits de Beer's seaming of memory and desire. The story links art's beginning to the passion of a woman, Dibutades, who traces the shadow of her departing lover on the wall, thus fixing his presence in the moment of imminent absence. Dibutades can only make her tracing, however, by turning away from her lover's actual presence, using the darkness of representation to hang on to the light of reality. Barthes determines the import of the photograph as this contradictory "memory of the present." This is the paradox of the photograph, which generates the undead, the specter of time without closure, a life of infinite deaths with no actual death. This too is the haunting of memory generally: the desperate human need - a need with which photography synthesizes - to contain that moment of ephemeral limerance.
These aspects of feminine desire and display, of multivalent identity, the "spatial metaphors" of Julia Kristeva, and - when we're lucky - these brief moments of direct, unmitigated fulfillment weave together in the complex format of Black Sun. Wanting, one might argue, is ultimately determined by an idea of memory; our minds focus on the peak and the final moments of a past experience while crowding out memories of its duration. In this process, which de Beer has termed the "phantasm of predestination," (your idea of) the past determines (your idea of) the future. Desire and memory rearticulate time according to its meaning, not its actuality. If time really exists only as memory, and has no relationship to the duration of the experience itself, why do we put such value on "things that last"? Why is length more elevated than intensity?
The splintered syntax of time is reflected in the deliberate framing of Black Sun. Ostensibly mapping three specific moments marked by simple numerical intertitles, the video traces events in the life or the memory of a single girl at three significant ages - roughly eleven, seventeen, and twenty-eight. Further intertitles trouble the temporal flow, suggesting that these events are recalled, cloudy, and constantly revised according to the girl's changing self. Quoting a similar practice used in cinema to organize the passage of time ("Six Months Later," "Sometime in the Present"), these intertitles suggest an attempt to organize and outline the past moment - a proposal ultimately confounded by the images themselves.
A girl stands outside the house. We hear the thunder of a stormy night, evocative the way even the trope of a childhood memory can be. A tightly framed bedroom, an older woman getting ready for bed, a brief shot of a man removing his pants. The woman lies down in bed, hands folded like a corpse. Approaching, climbing the stairs, the image slips between our point of view and the girl's - we are the viewer together. This potentially fetishistic slippage is made complete in Black Sun: we are as much inside as out; as the girl watches from outside, we stare from inside. The palette is deeper, more jewel-like, than in the earlier films, with shadowy outlines on the wall, filtered in deep red. The girl's feet pad the Astroturf, her body moving up the stairs beneath the slippery greenness of her satin nightgown, running, opening the door to an apprehensive unknown.
Time: Forgetfulness and Thunder
A slide show of objects - porcelain kittens, silk stockings, glittery rubber bracelets, a fat silver ring against a quilted silk bedspread - accompanies a voiceover, a girl's voice exploring the power of the image of another on one's own sense of self. She is feeling that feeling of multiple lives into which our past falls as we grow older, and the need to understand the other ones we once were: "Things about my other life seem to come back with me. Here is getting scarier then there now." Memory is like a haunting, like a ghost. The photographic image is itself a specter, according to Barthes's idea of the "has-been-there" aspect of image capture. Memory is a means of life-beyond-death, but one that is perverse, better, more horrific, limiting, essential. "She says where she lives, strange things go on all the time. Magic things, evil things."
Not Fade Away
In a dance studio we see the young girl again, in a pink leotard and legwarmers. She gets up and dances to a Phil Collins song on the radio: "You Can't Hurry Love." At this moment, among others just like them at this time of her life, we are witnessing the birth of a formative desire - the feminine desire to be looked at, but also to be in control. A pony toy comes to life, she entices it to dance with her. As in The Dark Hearts, the moment feels authentic: she is actually dancing, she choreographed the piece herself. The studio walls are bright pink, there is a pink parasol to play with, a tiara on the floor, teen fan magazines. Close-up frames show her total immersion, her dissolution, in the joy of her body. We are slightly discomfited by our awareness of the joy and ecstasy of the physical, by our brief glimpses of her own, suddenly fully embodied feminine sensuousness. Flipping back to being a little girl, the curve of her tiny waist erotic and childlike, she fetishizes herself as we do, again vacillating between inside and outside. Her awkwardness alternates with the discovery of skill, the totality of being in her own body.
Tomorrow Is Yesterday
The first moment repeats, is different. She is outside the house, the woman is folding clothes in the room, the girl is older but dressed identically.
The older woman in the bedroom is framed against the split screen of the teenage girl in a graveyard, trying on makeshift ghost costumes with a teenage boy. Their laughter is pleasurable discomfort, the moments of intimacy allowed by the safety of their masking. As in The Dark Hearts, the tension of the encounter is satisfied by a purity of contact, brief seconds of true exchange. The girl climbs the stairs, her body moving beneath the slippery green satin of her nightgown. Her feet on Astroturf, she opens the door of the same red room to an apprehensive unknown. What is happening inside?
A Fortified Castle
The graveyard, smoke and costumes, masks. They drink from a bottle, complicit. Her image fractured across the screens, the girl speaks to us directly, voicing a monologue on the construction of desire, the control of love, that is simultaneously powerful and completely aware of its own futility:
Until then, here's what I want. Love. Specifically I want the power to make people love me. Maybe a secret word which I'd only use when I saw someone special. I'd walk up to him or her, say that word, and then he or she would be very in love with me. Then, if they ever got bored, there'd be another word that would cancel the spell, wipe their memories clear of me.
From Deadness to Aliveness
In silence that heightens the tension of physical desire and fear, she removes her masks, her costumes, dons another as she performs a deliberate, minimal striptease, the next version of the younger girl's dance sequence. Knowing her beauty, her power, giving him (us) what we want, knowing we shouldn't be there. Moving, she is fully in herself, alive, capped by the perfect discomfort of not knowing what comes next. Hands brushing her hips, seductive and fully unsure.
The Problem of Time
The same girl, older again, standing in the terminal, dressed to leave. One has the sense of her life in full as she leans back against the slippery satin-blue of her seat. She puts on a black mask to sleep, a red light glows from outside.
The Night of the World
She dreams, sees the house, the older woman on the bed. Is that blood on her stomach? The young girl climbs the stairs, the teenager as well, bare feet move across the floor, the young girl in her pink leotard dances to a distorted version of the song. Distortions abound, in time and space. She opens the door, finally inside the room. The black-haired woman in the pink nightgown is the young girl getting ready for bed. She slips off her silk stockings; the black hair is a wig, carefully brushed and placed on her head. She is all those women. The room is tight, the camera swings, pulls in so tightly we know we shouldn't be this close. Her face is blank, looking at herself in the mirror. She has learned/will learn to reveal nothing. Time stands still, the closed frame traps her like the room itself, like the space of time the room projects.
As she sits in an airplane the red room is on her person, in her red shirt. The continuity of palette perhaps symbolizes how she carries it with her but owns that moment for herself, for her own body. She reads, eats, drinks, sleeps. People's resonance in one's life so rarely has to do with their actual presence, it is rather a manifestation of desire for who they were, are, or should be. The conundrum becomes how to hold one's past in a sense of the now - how to know that there is no real past, it's always that space of the undiscovered and the constantly renegotiated. In Black Sun's last monologue, the protagonist is shown on an airplane - the ultimate liminal space, nothing and nowhere, nontime and nonplace. We hear on the voiceover, "Things can't hold things. . . . You don't feel it when I do, since you're not me, though I hold you so dear, so deep, past the point of knowing what's real. There's something there, but it's not here."
An imagined sun, bright and black at the same time.
- Julia Kristeva, BLACK SUN: DEPRESSION AND MELANCHOLIA, 1989
Like much of de Beer's previous work, Black Sun weaves together myriad sources, from cinema, literature, pulp fiction. One might be the sinister, graphic, Asian-inspired aesthetic of Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977), whose protagonist, an innocent ballet dancer, faces the horror of the thing unknown. De Beer's spatial psychologies of the unknown and haunted also pull from writings ranging from Nathaniel Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables to melodramas like My Sweet Audrina and Flowers in the Attic, books targeted toward young girls. The mise-en-scènes of this genre are usually staged around a house, haunted by ghosts or by sinister events in the past that have trapped the heroine in some way. References to specific personal and cultural moments also abound in Black Sun, from the graveyard scene's gesture toward Michael Jackson's Thriller video, through the Phil Collins song to which the little girl dances, to the teenager's Sonic Youth T-shirt. The monologues spoken by the teenage girl that frame the most significant ideas of the piece-impossible desire, the transience of love, the difficulty in placing the memories that form our sense of ourselves-are in fact excerpts from novels by Dennis Cooper, originally written in the voices of young, gay men, a slippage of gender and sexuality wholly in keeping with the idea of the unfixed, fluid self that de Beer insists upon in all of her work.
De Beer's continued preference for a two-channel, split-screen presentation is a conceptual gesture on two levels, both decentering the cinematic experience and reinforcing the fractured nature of her narratives, which themselves in turn mimic the layered, hybrid identities of her characters. The images reflect and mirror across the screens; we often look at two versions of the same character, which seam together, then slip apart again. De Beer's phrasing of multiple identities diverges sharply from the pathological positioning pervasive in contemporary culture, projecting a sympathetic intimacy with the subject rather than a diagnostic distance. The idea of multiple selves is emotionally resonant; she has described it in terms of a doubling in which the existence of the replicated self is both troubling and necessary. This doubling is envisioned literally in Making Out with Myself, as its title suggests; in Hans & Grete, meanwhile, the two pairs of teenagers are played by the same actors, split selves revealing how context and choice turn similar impulses into wildly disparate results.
The spectral, ominous tone of much of de Beer's work may be linked to this formative notion of identity. "The multiple self is a place of horror," according to the artist:
because it is a place of no identity. Even if you can see yourself when you are doubled ... or if you make that image into an object and place it in front of yourself to look at it, you are displaced outside of yourself into this entity, which are now two. You become a stranger to yourself - an Other. Is that adolescent? That is something that must continue for one's whole life, right? Those moments where you step out of time and have no recognition of who you are, or where you are, or what led you to that point.
De Beer's haunted spaces are limned by the notion of the phantom self, most explicitly in Black Sun. Similarly, the installation for Black Sun is her most evolved evocation so far of this complex of ideas in a physical state. The two-dimensional construction of memory and desire in the video is reflected in the three-dimensional construction of the set. Space, as always, is crucial. Entering the gallery through glass doors stickered with the shadowy silhouette of trees, we are confronted by an aggressive wall of glossy pink. Even though we are indoors, this girlish structure is clearly the exterior of a house. It is impossible to grasp as a whole, however, for a total view of it is thwarted from all sides, and its claustrophobic placement in the entrance space encourages us either to enter quickly or to back away. Inside, the video plays on its usual two screens. Interior space is flipped again; we recognize the house we're inside from the video we're watching. Trapping us in layers of interiority - in the gallery, in the house, in the video - the physical and psychological fracture seems complete. Actually Hans & Grete, The Dark Hearts, and Black Sun are all staged against the image of the house, whether the surreal but familiar suburban houses of the first two works or the quintessential "haunted house on the hill" of Black Sun. Looming ominously above, one can almost hear the introductory voiceover from Robert Wise's 1963 film The Haunting: "an evil old house, the kind some people call haunted, is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored."
The concept of the split self in female subjectivity is emerging increasingly in de Beer's work. Historically divided in image, and today still constantly subjected to ideological contradiction, the female is formed as a multiple self that incarnates fantastic and irreconcilable mythologies. This fragmentation allows heterogeneity and flexibility to be valued above a single critical perspective, but if a search for some essential center of individual identity persists, there is a simultaneous danger of a splintered identity becoming pathological. Suggesting that the fluid feminine is metaphorically a paradigm of the postmodern nonlinear narrative, Laura Mulvey has used the Pandora myth to illustrate this idea of the feminine as both seductive surface and concealed threat. It is a concept that ripples beneath the surface of much of de Beer's work.
While Mulvey's critique is largely a barbed analysis of a male-oriented construction of women, de Beer's investigation shifts the perimeters somewhat to include a space in which the feminine can look at itself, becoming no longer purely the subject of another gaze but of its own as well. The idea of the decentered feminine involves a rejection of the modernist totality and singularity of form and narrative, replacing them with a web of allusions and hybrid identities, a dissolution of oppositions that resonates more closely with life. Perhaps a more truly "feminine" identity would involve a constantly shifting set of renegotiated priorities, masks, and vulnerabilities.
Rather than closing around a sense of loss, Black Sun posits the fact that memory and self are always constructs, inherently flawed and false, as the pool from which a sense of "aliveness" must be drawn. The last scene - in which the younger woman, the quasi-protagonist, is on an airplane - embodies this sense of liminality, this critical nonspace of becoming in which anything, in any direction, is possible. In this denouement of its narrative, Black Sun is permeated with a breathless sense of immanent "going," not necessarily departure but movement, which carries within it all the hope and despair of the before and after. As Paul Auster has written, "Finally on a plane, expecting, believing that it would crash, waiting for it, and having it not: perhaps I had discovered (quite simply) that the dead were not allowed to scream in you more than once a day. I looked out the window-nothing happened. White clouds, silver wing, blue sky. Nothing." The passage perfectly evokes the anticipatory tension of Black Sun. Airplane space is the most fully collapsed time we experience, belonging to nothing and no one but that exact moment, yet encompassing all those moments experienced and yet to be experienced. Vague possibilities shimmer in every direction.