Author: Katy Diamond Hamer
The Creative Independent, August 4, 2017
Katy Diamond Hamer: Sue de Beer on Discovering New Ways to Get Art Made
KATY DIAMOND HAMER: You've often been inspired by the symbolism and fantasy elements largely associated with youth. Can we talk about our shared love of unicorns and other mystical beings and how they have found their way from your subconscious into your films?
SUE DE BEER: My first bodies of work as a young artist were graphically violent, and shot in a neutral way. I looked at architectural and wedding photography for a lighting 'system' - something representing neutrality or trying to show detail rather than cast a mood. I had these 'set ups' that I thought of as being sculptural - they were of people mostly, some spaces. But again overall pretty violent. Later I started to work with sets and lighting that was more artificial, with color quite a bit. But still with these moments of violence in them. I was thinking a lot about America, and being young, and the edges of feeling and form.
When Shamim Momin asked me to do a project for the Whitney at Altria, that space was a public space, and she had restrictions on what could be shown there. We agreed that I would try to do something that didn't have images of graphic violence. I liked it as a creative challenge. So I took up Unicorns pretty solidly for that film. To replace the violence. Or as another representation of being young.
KDH: The earliest installation of yours that I experienced in person was Black Sun (2004-5) which was on view at the now defunct Whitney at Altria. I so clearly remember the castle like setting and the visual and audible elements from the film that were both dreamlike and yet somehow easy to identify with. In this earlier work, to what extent if at all were the characters connected to you and your own experiences?
SDB: Oh I don't know. All of it and none of it. The texts for that film are from Dennis Cooper novels - again with the violence taken out of them. I asked Dennis' permission and he said that was okay with him. Most of the texts I pulled from his books were written for male characters, but I switched the gender and had the texts coming from a female character. I liked the crossover.
There was a beautiful text that he wrote "I wish I had the power to make someone love me - maybe a secret word I'd only use when I saw someone special". Dennis wrote this for a gay male character. I did auditions with that text, and had different young women come in and try it out. I did that audition with my friend Titus who had just gone through a bad break up. Some of those girls just floored him, and also me. Sometimes it was really uncomfortable hearing this text spoken out loud. I could tell when the girls were speaking that the text represented everyone - Titus, these girls auditioning, Dennis' original character.
KDH: Having worked in mostly in video and photography, has there been a preference in choosing the medium you feel is the best solution for a particular idea? I'm thinking about the photographs --including bisected bodies-- that were on view at Interstate Projects in Bushwick last year - "opening to the sighs" curated by Dennis Witkin. I know they were older photographs but they were so poignant, violent and somehow timeless that I feel like they could only exist in the still format.
SDB: Yes, I agree. Those have to be stills. I love those images. They are important works of mine. Or important to me.
KDH: Over the years, you've collaborated with editorial and commercial projects. Something that I've admired is how the end result never feels differently from your gallery based aesthetic. I like that your work truly seems to be extracted from the mind of an adolescent; interlaced with beauty, eeriness, sexuality and horror. Has that been difficult to convince collaborators and directors of this importance or is that what they come to you for?
SDB: Well, I have been lucky with who I have worked with. But also you know it's hard for me to make anything other than that. I don't think I could. So I think if someone commercial asks me to do something, they know I will just be the artist that I am. No one has ever asked me to do anything differently than that.
I love looking at people's choices - the decisions they make when they get dressed, what they carry in their bags, how they decorate a room. When I was living in Berlin I moved constantly, and stayed in many places that weren't mine. I loved that - living with other people's decorating decisions, and their systems for making coffee.
KDH: You currently have a live Kickstarter campaign that has already surpassed your expectations. What has this experience been like? Can you also talk about the project you will be funding, The White Wolf (2017) and how it is a horror but also inspired by the aesthetic of the Italian Giallo?
SDB: Well, every film I have made is inspired by the Italian Giallo. But every film I have made is unique, and from a plot point of view they really have little to do with the Italian Giallo. This film is a werewolf film, and I don't really want to tell too much and spoil it. But I am excited about the script. I worked with Nate Axel again on the script.
The Kickstarter was something that I wanted to try doing. I remember talking with Jongho Lee about Rob Pruitt's eBay store, and about how much I liked it. That it reached different people - people that wouldn't normally be able to collect expensive artwork, sometimes people that didn't follow art. I can't afford to buy expensive artwork, so I enjoyed a place made by an artist where people like me could participate.
And I had a few people that I respect do Kickstarters and, I don't know, I thought maybe it was a quiet way to change the power structure for what can be funded. Like Bernie Sander's "30 dollar donations". I think Social Media has been a powerful force for change in that way - suddenly groups of people have a sense of how large their group is, and how they have shared concerns.
But you know I made the kickstarter, then I published it and panicked. It's really public! So if you screw up everyone sees it fail in real time! And they keep it up forever so I felt a lot of pressure to make a film I felt proud of for my ask film. I am relieved that my kickstarter has been a success - I forgot the part where I could really publicly fail!
KDH: While many artists focus on work that avoids gender or sexual references, I feel that your work is deliciously feminine and feminist. It has the ability to disrupt gender norms often associated with women by tearing down psychological structures and also delving headfirst into what could be described as the feminine psyche. Can you speak on this, what I would describe as a particular level of honesty or vulnerability in the work?
SDB: That's really kind of you. As a younger artist, I hated the female part of being a young female artist. I was happier just being a young artist. I hated answering questions that defined my work as coming from a female perspective. I hated having people comment on my appearance in press or in person. My incredibly intelligent students talk about their frustrations with having to "perform gender" or "perform race" and I empathize.
I don't think about gender when I make work honestly. Unicorns belong to everyone. But I do remember that it was a big moment for me when I sewed those giant stuffed animals as the installation for Hans & Grete. It took some courage.
Now I am older, so I don't really care what anyone thinks of me. I just do what I think will make the best artwork, and let other people decide what it means.
KDH: I enjoy the seduction found in many of your projects. There is an enticement through witches, magic, dark metal and fantasy that pulls the viewer in while also has the possibility to make some uncomfortable. Discomfort in art is so important. What are your feelings around that and the reaction or non-reaction of a viewer?
SDB: Oh I don't know. That's so nice also, thank you. I like to scare myself I guess. And I love seduction - I'm really fascinated by it.
KDH: What is next? Where do you see your next project going? Is the goal to get bigger and do a feature or focus on vignettes teetering between the representation of life and death?
SDB: This current film will represent 2 or 3 years of my life by the time I open the exhibition - I'm right in the middle of it, so it's hard for me to see past this moment. One thing I would like though would be to go back and re-master my older films, and find a way for them to be more easily accessible and be seen. I am going to finish the White Wolf, and then I really just want to work on that. Unlocking my 5 other films somehow, so everyone can see them.