Author: Sarvia Jasso
SOMA, February 2008
Sue de Beer: Mysteries of the Screen
Video art's dark darling looks to the past
Sue de Beer first worked her magic on me back in 2006, when the last line of her video The Quickening stayed with me long after its haunting images faded from the screen: "Beauty lies in mystery... the beauty is the mystery." For the installation, the Marianne Boesky Gallery had been converted into a comfy theater, complete with red shag carpeting and bean bags - think 1970's psychedelic lounge minus the hallucinogens. Perhaps for this very reason, the heft of the New York art scene had turned up for the opening: Whitney curator Shamim Momin could be spotted mingling with painter Barnaby Furnas, while troublemaker Terrence Koh reclined within earshot. Despite these notable guests, the audience was transfixed to the screen the moment those dream-like visuals took shape, captivated by an unlikely cast of actresses: Gina V. D'Orio and Annika Trost of the band Cobra Killer. And so I followed their lead, planting myself in the middle of the Dr. Caligariesque arrangement for some good old-fashioned movie watching.
Unlike previous works exploring the dark side of youth culture, The Quickening is set in Puritan America. But the video continues de Beer's long-standing interest in societal mores, probing at the insidious ways in which morality and religion slip into oppression and misogyny - but without being preachy. Pulling from various sources (such as Jonathan Edward's "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" and music by John Denver), the film documents our modern- day heroines as they are hunted down and killed. In the wake of these inexplicable crimes, we're left with only a defiant enigma. "It feels like there's something going on and it is so hard to figure out precisely what it is," says de Beer. "Maybe you court the crime so that you can at least know about it truly, even though you won't know enough to be able to stop it."
A native New Englander, de Beer frequented punk and metal shows as a teenager and admits that she was a bit of a troublemaker. "I liked the physical aggression of it all," she recalls. "I didn't weigh very much so I liked the mosh pit because I seemed to float to the top of it like paper." It's shocking to learn that de Beer, despite her good-natured and friendly demeanor, was also expelled from high school. But all to a good end: She started making art, ended up at Parsons School of Design and then Columbia University for her MFA.
Though de Beer did not make her first video until graduate school ("simply because I had never made a video before"), her uncanny vision sets her apart. Making Out With Myself, in which she used a plaster cast of herself and then - you guessed it - passionately kissed it, is very reminiscent of early video's low-tech explorations. De Beer recalls spending a lot of time in a Protestant church as a child, an experience that ultimately influenced her minimal design aesthetic and somber color palette. However, this changed radically in 2002 during the filming of Hans und Grete in Berlin, when de Beer placed a gel on a light and "felt like an asshole - like New England had fucked my soul because the color was so fucking beautiful."
Considering its reputation for being cold and dreary, the city provides the backdrop for many of de Beer's current collaborations, not to mention an endless source of inspiration. Her latest effort is shaping up to be quite a departure. Permanent Revolution (2007), for which she enlisted the help of artist, musician and fellow Berlin transplant Gavin Russom, is a contemplative video about the implications of war and destruction. Influenced by the structure of novels, the action is divided into chapters with intermissions for two large-headed, carnivalesque characters who dance around a stage. In one chapter, images of bombed buildings are juxtaposed with Walter Gropius' text about Bauhaus architecture. Interweaving history and cultural production with the current state of affairs, Permanent Revolution proves a much more somber - some might even say more mature - work for someone once pegged as video art's dark darling.