Author: Ana Finel Honigman
Sculpture Magazine, September 2005
Great Places to Take a Date
Brooklyn-based Sue de Beer lures audiences into her disquieting sculptural constructions with blood-and-heartache-filled films. de Beer's installations pump up the volume on her emotionally throbbing videos and photographs, which reference the slasher movies, horror flicks, goth rock, and other nightmare genres that give voice to teenage fears and yearning. In 1999, after earning an MFA at Columbia University, de Beer collaborated with Laura Parnes to create the macabre unauthorized sequel to Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy's Heidi video, At the 2004 Whitney Biennial, De Beer exhibited Hans und Grete, her single-channel video installation in which she interwove references to the I 970s German revolutionary gang Baader-Meinhof, the teenage shooters in Littleton, Colorado, and Nightmare on Elm Street. The kids are similarly restless in Black Sun, a two-channel video screened from March through July at the Whitney Museum of American Art at Altria in the interior of a wooden house specially constructed to replicate the film's set. de Beer's contribution to P.S.1's "Greater New York" exhibition, Dark Hearts (2003), which tells the orphan-love story between a dreamy goth-boy and the preppy girl who meets him on the road and becomes fascinated by his wicked yet fragile beauty, captures the Leader-of-the- Pack beauty in all of de Beer's art.
Ana Finel Honigman: Why do you choose to display your videos in conjunction with sculptural elements?
Sue de Beer: It started as a purposeful accident. When I began making art, all of my pieces were either photos or videos, but in them, I often made use of some kind of extreme prop. Because I made these props myself, I now count them as my first forays into sculpture. For example, in Untitled, I took a photo of myself sliced in half. To make that image I crafted a full-body cast of myself, sculpted the wound out of wax, and finally fused two photos of me around the sculptural object to make the final print.
AFH: When did your use of sculpture evolve from making props to installations?
SdB: I made my first sculptural installation for Heidi 2, my project with Laura Parnes. We made that installation because the video was so long.
AFH: So, were you thinking of the installation almost like an incentive for viewers to stay and watch the whole video?
SdB: No, that would have been too much like us displaying some sort of aggression against the viewer. It was more about finding a rational use of the space. People were going to be spending at least a half hour in there.
AFH: What did you learn from that early experience of merging installation and video?
SdB: I learned never to cast again. When we were making that installation we did a lot of casting, and I developed an allergic reaction to the mold release. I walked around looking like Freddy Kruger for a month.
AFH: Appropriate, right?
SdB: Yeah. Also, that piece traveled for three years, so I learned a lot by following how the installation held up under foot traffic. That knowledge has been really helpful to me in terms of what I am doing now. I need to know that because I am making objects intended to be handled, sat on, participated with.
AFH: Are people comfortable tactilely engaging with the sculptural parts of your work, or are they too shy?
SdB: People seem to know now that they can touch all the objects, so they get excited. Sometimes they almost get too excited. At the Whitney Biennial, the stuffed animals ended up with some odd things stuffed under them. I even found a bottle of hand lotion and some magazines under Klaus, the purple lion. I was like, "Klaus! What have they been doing to you?" Things have to be built as if you were building for an insane preschool.
AFH: Couldn't "insane preschool" be a definition for art in general?
SdB: No. Actually art is the opposite of insane preschool in terms of materiality. The insane preschool analogy had less to do with content and more to do with the way that the objects are being touched. Things are delicate and fragile and rare in an art context. People can't use art, so instead they watch the things from a distance. Art is more like a zoo in that way. My experience so far is that if you let people touch and use your art they can lose control and maul it a bit because that's what they've always wanted but have never been allowed to do.
AFH: Most of your installations evoke typical teenage ways of watching movies. At "Statements for Basel Miami" in 2004, you constructed a drive-through setting complete with a constructed car and at the Whitney Biennial, you invited viewers to snuggle with stuffed animals while watching Hans & Grete. Do you want your installations to draw people into the world of your adolescent characters, or are the installations designed to alert viewers to the artifice of your movies?
SdB: Well, I don't really see any artifice. My world is kind of real to me. The experience of shooting on my sets feels pretty real. What I mean is, I have driven in a regular car and a plywood car and both kinds of driving felt real to me. I think it is pretty engaging when I snuggle with Mr. Kitty. And, usually when I am building these installations, I am thinking about making something that I wish I had in my apartment.
AFH: What do you think links the experience of viewing while lounging on massive stuffed animals or soft, plush chairs with the more mysterious experience of climbing through a creepy clapboard house in order to watch a film?
SdB: I think that the link between the different installations is that they would all be great places to take a date. You could relax with your baby, hold hands, and cop a feel inside the sculpture.
AFH: Are you sure you want to encourage that kind of thing? Look what happened to Klaus.
SdB: Klaus loved it.
AFH: Demonic dolls and cursed toys are such a classic horror-flick motif. Why do you think there is a connection between stuffed animals and fear?
SB: It is scary to love something unconditionally. When you are in love, or when you love, you are the most vulnerable you will ever be. You can love a toy safely because you know it won't fuck with you, but when the toys start fucking with you too-you know things have gotten bad.
AFH: But don't children also abuse their stuffed animals mercilessly? Aren't they a little like clowns in that way? They are our victims, and on some level, we know they would be justified in taking revenge.
SdB: Pleasure comes in many different forms, and sometimes it comes for the wrong reasons. If we were Lacanians this would all fall under the heading of jouissance. Sometimes it feels good to torture someone or something, sometimes it feels good to be loved or to love unconditionally, sometimes it feels good to be hated by someone or something.
AFH: How does this relate to your work?
SdB: Maybe this is why there was such a frenzy in the Biennial room-the audience internalized the angst in Hans & Grete and enacted it on the animals.
AFH: Do your other works provoke similar reactions?
SdB: People were not as abusive to the car at P.S.1, but the situation was different with the house at the Whitney Museum at Altria. There, people explored the installation in ways I didn't anticipate. They climbed in through the windows in order to see if there was a way they could get into the part of the gallery that had been blocked off. It was funny to be in that space because while you watched the video a head might peek in behind you and watch you watching.
AFH: That sounds terrifying.
SdB: Well, it is a situation that reflects the moods of the videos. I like it when that happens When you watch Hans & Grete, you abuse your environment. While watching Dark Hearts, you wait for someone to come kiss you because it has this waiting and observing thing. But Black Sun is about exploring places you aren't allowed to go, so I like that people climb it, trying to get to areas they can't reach.
AFH: So, would you say that the sculptural elements in your installations are successful when they represent the essence of the films?
SdB: Maybe, and maybe that is why I keep thinking about Minimalism right now.
AFH: Do you think that would further exaggerate the emotional experience? Do you think Minimalism can articulate aspects of the videos that representation can't?
SdB: There is a psychological aspect to how people interact with a space-the way the space is delineated encourages people to do one thing or another.
AFH: I can't really see you doing pure white structures. Which Minimalist works affect or inspire you?
SdB: I guess I will get in trouble here because not all of these artists are strictly Minimalists, but I keep thinking about a Flavin show that I saw at Dia a long time ago. It was installed very well: the lights were given their own space, and you moved through the rooms guided by the color. I also think of when Robert Gober left a room empty except for a drain in the floor.
AFH: So, would you say that when you think of Minimalism, you're not referring to stripped-down forms but defining Minimalism as one idea perfectly executed to the exclusion of any other idea?
SdB: Maybe by "Minimalism," I mean a piece of sculpture that breaks down each architectural situation, as if it were a Judd. This isn't reflected in my work yet, or at least I don't think it is, but it is on my mind.
AFH: Aesthetically and conceptually your work reminds me of the concerns addressed in Riot Grrl feminism. Am I right to think the theory and subculture of that movement have influenced your work?
SdB: That is an interesting question. I am a big fan of those 'zines Johanna Fateman produced in the 90's. My friend Rachel just lent me "Artaud-Mania" and "My need to speak on the subject of Jackson Pollock". And I had a studio assistant who got into a car accident in high school skateboarding to Bikini Kill. Isn't that great? She was hanging onto the back of a car.
AFH: Do you think it is still relevant to interpret art from a feminist standpoint?
SdB: I guess the answer is that every woman who is actively producing and shaping culture is part of the dialogue defining and redefining femininity and feminine identity. I feel like there was a backlash against feminism in the '90s in the artworld, and now there is some kind of fuzzy 'post-feminist' discourse, that is not quite interesting. [Cultural theorist] Slavoi Zizek says that the revolution isn't the most important thing, it is the day after the revolution is what matters.
AFH: Is post-feminist a term you are comfortable applying to your work?
SdB: I am part of the moment after the revolution, so I am participating in building the new. Sometimes that is confusing. I owe a lot to '70s and '80s feminism. Without that movement, I would never get to do big installations in museums. So, if I were 20 years older, things would have been much, much harder for me. Not that building large installations is ever easy.
AFH: Why do you think there is a renewed interest in horror imagery or Gothic narratives in culture?
SdB: All of these things are social. Recently, I have also been surfing images of Glen Danzig [of the bands The Misfits and Danzig]. I am particularly fascinated by the way he looked in 1993. His look was kind of reassuring because he was so solid; even though he was really short, he seemed decisive. I think in that particular moment, he stood for the kind of direction that you could take.
AFH: He provided an image of ideological assurance that was non-existent in an era moral relativism?
SdB: With this dark stuff, goth and horror, you are up against death, but the gothic narrative provides a structure cradling you while you look into the abyss. I think this is why there is an earnestness in art right now. People want meaning and meaningfulness in life. Maybe this need is intensified because there is a void of structure and meaning right now.
AFH: What does the current wave of original and remakes of classic or foreign borror films say about our current cultural concerns?
SdB: Maybe a new passivity.
AFH: Do you mean a political or creative passivity?
SdB: Maybe both. I think there is a general feeling that we're a generation incapable of changing anything. That makes this a good time for remakes and sequels.
AFH: Would you consider your films to be remakes or sequels?
SdB: No, I am not really interested in perpetuating the sequel problem. I made Heidi 2, but even then it felt important to try to make "the new" happen. I am against the impossibility of changing things.
AFH: How does your art relate to the cultural products-books, movies, and subcultures-that you reference?
SdB: I guess that the people/characters in my videos are coming face to face with cultural inertia and trying to sort it out. They are filled with yearning. They want change, newness, contact, and life. They're trying to build the new on rocky footing.
AFH: Are you interested in making mass-market movies, a Hollywood or indie film?
SdB: I keep going back and forth on this. I think the difficulty is that with film, you need a minimum budget of a quarter of a million dollars, and you need to get distribution for your project when it is complete. In a perfect world, with this problem solved, this feels like the plus and minus to me: in film, you have a burst of fame for your project, and it lasts for a couple of years, the whole world has access to it, and then everyone forgets about it in 10 years. My students, for example, do not know "Twin Peaks," which in its time was a ubiquitous pop-culture phenomenon. So, you have this massive ability to communicate, followed by the din of silence. Art reaches fewer people, but it unravels itself more slowly over time, and it stays in your mind in a more current kind of way. All of my students know who Jeff Koons is, for example, or Hannah Wilke and Francesca Woodman. Woodman was dead by the time "Twin Peaks" came out.
Ana Finel Honigman is a writer living in Oxford, England.