Author: Paul Foss
artUS, New Year 2008
Sue de Beer - Permanent Revolution
It's just a white cube bathed in green light, the hue, according to Alexander Theroux, of "both renewal and reproduction or infirmity and illness," with "more forces and guises than are countable." The viewing room is uniformly set at an odd angle inside the gallery and fitted with shag carpet, foofs, and a few chairs, establishing a rank, even clubby atmosphere. Projected on a large screen is Permanent Revolution, Sue de Beer's latest video installation whose title already evokes the fate of its own staging, whether enigmatic - Walter Benjamin's "ungraspable transition" - or instructional - the "appearance of banality."
De Beer's 27 minute video starts off in key with fast-cut images of soldiers unloading and unpacking weapons, while a voiceover recounts the birth pangs of the Bauhaus from "a flaming protest against materialism [that] was founded after the horror of war" (words taken from Oskar Schlemmer's 1923 Das Staatliche Bauhaus manifesto). Quick fade to a Rasputin-like figure swathed in red light (reminiscent of Yves Bonnefey's "The place of the dead / May be a fold in red cloth"), who seems to be playing a primitive electronic organ or Theramin, the Russian inventor of which was himself dealt a double fate or foil as both capitalist inventor and Soviet undercover agent. Next, in keeping with this blend of either music or espionage, fade to black: a guy looks up at snow falling. Then two masked goths with hooded capes dance around against a bluish backdrop of painted, teary eyes and an archaic symbol (Schlemmer staged theatre at Bauhaus). We hear Rosa Luxemburg's famous words: "tomorrow the revolution will 'rise up again.' (...) I was, I am, I shall be." Several other coded scenes follow, punctuated by excerpts from Bauhaus fabric artists Gertrud Grunow's 1923 Farbe, Form, Ton ("Light and color are no longer just blue and red - they are a living force") and Walter Gropius' Principles of Bauhaus Production (1925). Slipping in and out of frame and sync are, variously, an afroed dude, psychedelic swirls and patterns, a grotesque puppet character who is set on fire, snowy walks, old bauhaus footage, model household appliances, the entirety intercut with previous scenes. Everything ends in mist before looping back again to the "spiritual" awakening caused by the "misery of war."
In Permanent Revolution, the Berlin / New York artist plays leapfrog with Marx and Engel's famous proletarian battle cry, a Hegelian fairytale that first appeared in Die heilige Familie (1845) and Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League (1850), but which thereafter disappeared from their lexicon, only to be picked up again later by Trotsky and even Rosa Luxemburg. Raised originally by Marx to resound within the settings of the Napoleonic Wars, during which time the bourgeoisie not only facilitated the transition in France between the Terror ("permanent war") and "permanent revolution" but also helped to crush its very momentum by artificially creating a famine that eventually delayed the Russian campaign, bringing the machinery of revolution to a halt, the term implies not so much a revolutionary class in itself as a kind of historical agency, an always fluctuating titration of the "decisive forces of production." This idea is further refined in later formulations leading to the March 1850 address, in which Marx's theory is no longer about revolution per se, but appears as a sort of wake up call to the forces of political subjection. As if this was not fanciful enough, echoes of this forever "imminent" awakening reappear in the later Soviet song and dance about the "direct victory" of the proletariat, Bauhaus's "resolute affirmation of the living environment of machines," Johannes Itten's Zoroastrian "color spheres," right through historical modernism, the counterculture, and beyond. Itten's 1921 claim that "everything moves, and nothing is ever dead, for otherwise the world would not exist," is, I suspect, the point of all this cavorting about in de Beer's video. My guess is that, like Benjamin, she can't stop excavating the "dark loam" of cultural memory, where what lies buried must always come back - as the farcical scene or stage of its own revolution.