Author: Doreet Harten
Checkpoint Magazine, Arndt & Partner, September 2007
SUE DE BEER
AND HER SENSE OF THE TERRIBLE
I think that a lot of what was said about Sue de Beer being the grand dame of adolescence aesthetics missed her treatment of that category as a strategy. It is not the agonies of youth in her early works, nor the melancholic stupor of her more mature protagonists in a later work, The Quickening (2006), which she found interesting and she knew well to guard herself against their ululations by putting in their mouths or as a voice over (the voice of God) texts written by fanatics like Jonathan Edwards in his fire and brimstone style of preaching or decadent like Joris-Karl Huysmans. That created a discrepancy that destabilized meaning and located de Beer as a true voyeur of the modern. Moreover, though it was the pleasure of their beauty rather than their tortured souls which gave grace and made it possible to mobilize the youths as compartments of minute rituals, de Beer maneuvered them into reflecting a much wider topic, that of the passage from modernity to all its posts - the passage, its illusions and traumas. As reflectors, they build the visual matrix of her works.
Adolescence then, known for its stuttering gesticulations, was also her way to take language out of the game so that the fuzzy logic of her images stands independent of any explicit interpretation.
This is why looking at the video installations of de Beer is not exactly a lesson in textual coherence but one in recognizing appearances. All the requisites which enable understanding disappear by intention. Linguistic scaffolds crumble unless you favor private mythologies. The narrative seldom relates to the image, the sequences are delirious. It's a dreamscape with iconic memories.
In a sense de Beer is a true American artist in the tradition of Edward Kienholz, Ed Ruscha and Robert Longo, and by True American I mean the capacity to generate a spiritual production without it being immersed in a historical matrix. It is the capacity to form ideas on the basis of a continuous present, where history is a tourist resort, whose souvenirs are brought back home as a set of collective memoirs. History, then, is not the source but the antidote, by which the present is being understood, grasped. This understanding of the historical dimension shifts her works towards a certain treatment of the present. It is now framed as a horror tale, and therefore is also nostalgic in its lack of immediate historical consistency, uncanny and obsessed with its surfaces. A mythical and fossilized present which uses the gothic format to emphasize its immediacy exactly because the notion of the gothic is based on faking history, and by doing so it builds a past which never existed.
The present orphaned from its past is traditionally delivered in the form of the fairy tale, which de Beer applies in many of her works. Hans and Grete, her video installation from 2002 may relate on its surface to the national German myth of the RAF group and there is a great comfort in equating pubescent melancholia with their actions as a fulfillment of a desire. But if you discern horror from terror, you realize that de Beer made it very clear that horror, being a construction of the mind, is the true authentic capital to be used in her works rather than the terrorist acts on which the piece is based. De Beer, we might say, exchanges psychoanalytical procedures in favor of a certain sense of wonder where things are not explained-but shown. By calling the work Hans and Grete, the code names of Ensslin and Baader, catapults reality into the realm of the fairy tale where the Lacanian Real becomes visceral and starts bleeding. Hans and Grete, I remind you, were sent to their deaths by their parents, simply so and with no apology. All fairy tales are about the horror being laid bare and this is the skeleton on which de Beer's tale of ambiguities can be told. In The Quickening, a maiden is dancing with a wolf and was it not the mother who sent Red Riding Hood to her incestuous encounter with the animal knowing a thing or two about rape? Or the recurring theme of the doubleganger as in the many split images which ends in her own head being cut in two (Untitled, 1998).
The real does not need a narration but it needs a frame of mind which brings me back to the gothic. De Beer, like Kienholz and Ruscha and Longo makes it an aesthetic mediator. By using the aesthetics of the gothic de Beer can assume the role of the unreliable narrator and the beauty of being misunderstood. She is admitted to the realm of the haunted place, the antiquated arena and its necromantic delights.
This is why de Beer gives importance to the presence of a staged context while viewing her videos. It creates a snow globe effect where by virtue of a set of decisions the space is an extension of the hallucinatory screen, that is, it encapsulates the horror and encloses it within a confined environment together with the one who observes. It is now a movie turned real, in other words the sacralisation of a space no more mundane and therefore enriched with possibilities of miracles and atrocities.
As in her earlier works de Beer's use of the pastiche technique is present also in her last video installation, presented at Arndt & Partner Berlin (2007), which is the story of the Bauhaus told against the grain. In the official chapters of art history the Bauhaus stands for all things modern, that is, a construct of a future of promises based on rational thoughts. But the Bauhaus, like much of abstract art is also rooted in occult perceptions and its obsession with the idea of progress was often translated through many of its mentors, such as Johannes Itten or Vassily Kandinsky, into a language which was more esoteric than scientific. These occultic tendencies stemming from theosophy as in the case of Kandinsky or the Zoroastian styled sect, the cult of Mazdaznan, whose adept was Itten, are given a visual space by de Beer which relates to the occult in its color scheme, its morbid atmosphere, and its physical contextualization (you are lead to the work through a forest), that is the mental landscape she used in earlier works, the mental space she feels at home with. And as in the earlier works, here also meaning is destabilized by overlaying the text, the Bauhaus Manifesto, rich in expectations and spoken in the authoritative voice of the one who knows against the images which mutate its meaning. The text echoes Oscar Schlemmer's Triadic Ballet about an alliance forged between man and machine that is now morphing into a break-dance sequence, thus keeping the promise but denying it the sense of original decorum it entailed. This discrepancy between the utopian and rational text and the occultic paraphernalia of light machines and unsolved presentation, this rebus between rationality and its mad daughters, is the heart of darkness towards which we are being lead. From this perspective the Bauhaus is a ghost town whose inhabitants visit us in our dreams, a place you entered through the woods and by mistake. A place of broken promises.