Author: Carly Berwick
filmcomment, july / august 2005
Daughters of Darkness
To watch Sue de Beer's two-screen video installation Black Sun at the Whitney Altria this spring, visitors had to enter a nearly life-size recreation of the old dark house familiar from films like Psycbo, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Amityville Horror. It's the same creaky quasi-Victorian that exists as a stock element in books such as Flowers in the Attic or The House of the Seven Gables. Inside, viewers sat on comfy bean- bag chairs as de Beer's elliptical, deeply intertextual story about the horrible, mixed-up, very bad, and very good inner desires of teenage girls played across the screens. Like all of her work Black Sun confronts the heightened melodrama of adolescence. As in horror movies and pre-teen novels, the house in de Beer's video stands as a metaphor for the mind. Its promise of unknown terrors feels like the sudden revelation of teen sex-or of a discarded memory.
The camera pans across a handmade set alive with lurid greens and reds. A dark-haired girl walks up carpeted stairs as an older woman sleeps. The two screens divide and symmetrically mirror the hallway. The girl approaches the bedroom door, turns the han- dle, and then . . . the screen goes black. She reappears in a pink leotard and dances with a large stuffed-animal horse to Phil Collins's cloying, contagious cover of "You Can't Hurry Love." As the older woman moves slowly around her bedroom another dark-haired girl cavorts with a boy in a nearby graveyard (also handmade). Dressed in sheets and masks they drink, giggle, and flirt. Left alone in front of the gravestones, the girl strips, slowly removing her Sonic Youth T-shirt until she's wearing only a black bra and lace underwear. The next scene, possibly years later, finds her on an airplane dressed in business casual. She eats a solitary meal. Meanwhile, back inside the house, her teenage self and the other dark-haired girl race up the stairs, still eager to turn that handle. The door poses a horror-film twin imperative: Don't go there/You must! Beyond the door the melancholy older woman brushes her hair. Is this the exciting promise of adulthood? Of compromise and maturity? All three women act as memories of each other, projected, reversed, clouded, revealed, and dropped- only to be returned to, yet again.
Black Sun's title is taken from French philosopher Julia Kristeva's essay collection (subtitled Depression and Melancholia), which discusses, among other things, the yearning sadness that drives us to find a substitute love object to compensate for a loss or wound, which some psychoanalysts say goes back to the original trauma of maternal separation. But even for those unfamiliar with Kristeva's book, this Black Sun portravs once and future women toying with the limits of their desires."De Beer also includes several voiceovers drawn from novels by Dennis Cooper, a writer whose main theme is the twisting byways of lust. The dark-haired girl in the graveyard announces her deepest desire:
"Here's what I want: Love. Specifically, I want the power to make people love me, maybe a secret word, which I only use when I see someone special." It's a glimpse of a relatively gentle form of ado- lescent longing-one we pretend to outgrow.
There's a deliberate girlishness to many of Black Sun's images-the ceramic kittens and discarded nylons, the stuffed pony and pink leotard. De Beer willfully refuses to renounce these personal details, however ungainly they prove to be-a radical gesture in its own right. The installation was accompanied by a pamphlet, the front a reproduction of the cover of a girl's diary. The text inside reprinted e-mail correspondence between de Beer and curator Shamim Momin prior to the show. It gets personal. "I remembered being an insomniac 9-year-old, wandering through our childhood house, listening to evervone sleeping," the artist wrote Momin. "It made me feel like, 'Oh, this isn't recent.' I was just such a lush through my 20s that I didn't notice it." The diaristic impulse-and how it creates as much as reveals a self-is part of the point of Black Sun. The piece addresses how we access memory to construct versions of ourselves. Our teen flirtations and faddish passions can be expunged-or they can be preserved in recognition that some- times the most awkward moments can be the most sublime. There was another diary on view at the Whitney Altria: the open book galleries often leave for visitors to write comments. A few wrote that they "didn't get it." One signatory, "Krystal Ortiz, Latin Princess," said that she "loved it." A 58-year-old woman noted that she was a mother and cancer survivor: "The film spoke to me." Then there was Mandy, who wrote, "I want to live in this space," and signed her name with a heart. Dear Mandy: You already do.