Author: Casey McKinney
Interview with Sue de Beer for "No. 1", a book on artist's first projects
ed. Francesa Richer and Matthew Rosenzweig, 2002
Casey McKinney Interviews Sue de Beer
on 'Making Out with Myself'
Casey McKinney: So this was your first video piece? Why go that route?
Sue de Beer: I made this piece in 1997. It was actually based on a performance that I did at Momenta Art where these two people were joined together at the lips. That piece was kind of a disaster but there was something nice about the motion and something that I couldn't capture in a photograph. The video itself is very photographic. It's three minutes long and in a way non-narrative. It's more like a kinetic photograph, the way that it functions. I think if you compare it to my later work in photography that it's similar. It's one image, one shot. There's no editing, no change in framing. But I was able to do things that I couldn't with a photograph. Like you have the before and after of the kiss, the weirdness of it being live and being fake, which didn't really seem possible in a photograph. I actually tried to do it as a photograph too, but it didn't work as well.
CM: So prosthetically joined at the lips... kissing yourself, you also did a similar kissing image for the cover of Mall Punk...
SdB: Yeah prosthetics and special effects but then also this idea of intimacy. When I did the video I had just finished reading Remembrance of Things Past, and there was this moment in The Captive where Proust, who has been sequestered in his house and developed this tremendous jealousy of his girlfriend, is kissing her goodnight, and he talks about the inside of her mouth being an entranceway and yet a barrier to her. This kiss to me is a perfect symbol of thwarted intimacy, because on the one hand he is inside her body, but on the other hand it's just another sign of being incapable of inhabiting someone else's body. So making out with myself in this video has the same sort of impotence to it. The kiss that you are seeing is real, there are two of me, and the kiss is really happening, but it is also really low-fi, and therefore also very fake. There is this mood to it that has that same sort of impotence or thwarted quality to it, of trying to get inside of your own body, and being incapable of intimacy, even if it is reflexive. So it's really... it's really pathetic actually (laughs).
CM: It is very lo-fi. This being your first would you do it differently now that you have more skill?
SdB: No I like it crappy actually. I'm really interested in special effects in movie making and the way in which people try and make an imaginative image, but for me, one of the important things in this and which carries over into all of my works, is that you see the hand that makes it, that the blue screen is really jumpy, and that you see the edge of the face sort of flickering in and out, that you can sense someone behind it all creating this perverse image.
CM: Did you expect that effect going into it, knowing your limitations, or was that something you liked once it occurred.
SdB: I think I knew that I wouldn't be able to do it terribly well, and some of the earlier pieces that I had done using prosthetics had that split between being believable and sort of not believable, and yeah, when I was editing it, I really liked the result, and that made me realize how important that was, the obvious fakeness. That is something that has come up again and again in future works. That's why this video is such an important first project for me.
CM: You have repetitions, themes that come up, like the intimacy issue, but also the replication of self. I guess you said that you got the idea for the video from seeing Christie Tarlington kissing herself in an ad that you saw on a bus.
SdB: Yeah but that stuff was in my work before that. That was my catchphrase for a time.
CM: Well in the Mall Punk series that you did, the cover piece (which was later used for the cover of Dennis Cooper's new book My Loose Thread)... I think when we were talking about what would be a cool cover for the magazine, I had suggested a guy and girl in a similar pose, but then you ended up doing two guys, which fits in better with the replicated self theme. But you also pushed it into a gorier realm. Can you talk about the way that the earlier themes, fused with the more violent themes in your later work?
SdB: I guess the first violent piece I did, that was shown at the same time as the kissing piece was this photo where I was split in half. I had been reading a lot of Dennis Cooper books, and actually I was thinking about his relationship to Proust... I take in a lot of his (Cooper's) work and Genet's work because they are also interested in the artifice of (construction?) and because of the way Cooper uses violence as an expression of intimacy, or thwarted intimacy. It's very moving to me. The next big project was Heidi 2, which was a sequel to Mike Kelly and Paul McCarthy's movie Heidi, which was sort of styled on the American horror movie - I think I read somewhere that it was specifically styled on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - so I was sort of obsessively investigating American horror movies when making that piece, and combined with my interest in Cooper and Genet, it was somehow about seeing your own death or how America sees images of death. I think even in the make out video that element is there as well because one of the heads looks almost corpselike. It's like kissing a corpse or your imagined dead self. That was really interesting to me looking back on it. What started out as two living people in production became one alive and one dead once completed.
CM: Your work continues some themes of other artists that have been described as feminist, work dealing with the conflict between ubiquitous idealized images of self and the personal self-perceived image. Someone I was talking to recently said that she thought that your work approached these issues in a way that didn't use the same tropes, that was almost masculine in its approach.
SdB: More gender neutral. Yeah I tend to think of myself in a more gender neutral way, and I think the make out video is gender neutral. It's de-glamorized, sort of goofy and sort of pathetic, but it's not particularly gendered to me. I am interested in the history of feminist art, and I am also interested in many other histories, whatever I find to be exciting to me at the time. So then Cooper or Genet are gay men, or Valle Export who is really great to me is coming from a history of feminism. These are all great people and they are categorized in different ways, which may or may not fit with what their work actually means.
CM: Who are some of your film heroes? Do you have favorite effects people?
SdB: Yeah I have a lot of Tom Savigni books. I'm more into the old ways of doing effects, having to use actual props, rather than the computer. In the make out video I actually made a plaster cast of my own head that I used to kiss. So even though it looks totally digital, it was made in an old fashion way.
CM: Some of the later works you've done, some of the photographs, Like Twins or the one of the two girls exploded that have kind of become one, their torsos sort entwined or shoved through the other... it seems that a lot of emphasis is put on the formal arrangement.
SdB: Yeah Twins is sort of a flattened swastika. Yeah it's pretty awful. The pose was actually taken from a Sheile drawing where the models bodies formed a swastika.
CM: Well this is another instance where you have done a piece in an updated form. Why this interest in doing remakes and sequels? Are you trying to update the subject for a modern audience, or is it to get things right that you saw flawed in the originals, or is it more of an homage? What percentage is what?
SdB: Yean I am kind of a bottom feeder.
CM: No there's a definite difference. Like in Twins you've added bobby socks and miniskirts and it becomes a different piece...
SdB: I think everything I do stems from somewhere else, from the works of others.
CM: Yeah, like the Nightmare on Elm Street reference in the piece Bed, with the blood dripping from the ceiling. Are you making a comment on revisionism itself? Or is it just that you are interested in these things.
SdB: It's not that highbrow, from my perspective. Others may get that from the work and that's fine. History kind of becomes kind of a collage. But I think of myself as more of a fan.
CM: Have you ever read any Frederick Exley? He has this book called A Fan's Notes, in which the premise is that all anyone can be these days is a fan. He's talking about sports, but ultimately it's about originality, and sort of the exhaustion or impossibility of originality, and how we are left to be merely fans of prior achievements.
SdB: No I haven't read that, but that's great you should have me quote that. Yeah, well there are people like Hal Foster who talk about the death of originality and repetition, and I guess the difference is that the topic of my work is not about that death. I have no problem with my status as it stands. I feel really comfortable. So it's not the subject, it's just the form that I use.
CM: Do you worry that people might accuse your work of being formalist? Some artists really take offense at such accusations.
SdB: No I actually think about formal things a lot. And I don't think that my work gets addressed a lot on formal terms. Because of the thing that we were talking about before, with leaving the loose ends visible, being able to see the hand of the artist, I think maybe people get this idea that it's spontaneous, but actually the work is very carefully constructed, extremely minimal - the photographs in particular are - so yeah they're all about formalism. I love it.
CM: Let's talk a little bit about innocence. All of your work seems to deal with young people, and I wonder if you think of your work as correcting some of the media's images of young people, their misconceptions about what it means to be in the mind of a young person.
SdB: I think it depends on the source of the media. The prime time newscaster reporting on an fifteen year old kid that got shot at a school is probably going to get it really wrong, but an account posted on a teenager's website about the same incident might be a lot more accurate. I mean somewhere someone is going to get it right. Partly what I am interested in is a kind of empathy that someone can have for something that's been mass marketed, like totally loving and believing in a rock star, or believing in the world of zombies, and that having a kind of sweetness and purity to it. And also sources that you wouldn't normally think of as being pure, like an earnest love of advertisements for a hair product. And so taking a horror movie out of the context of the schlock narrative, you might have a fifteen year old confronting death for the first time, and dealing with their own mortality, and seeing that as a pure experience. That's something that is a constant in my work, even in the make out video.
CM: So who are the icons of the school shooters that you deal with?
SdB: It depends on the kid. They are really particular. One of the ones' that I got really obsessed with was Kip Kinkel. He was really into Marilyn Manson and Trent Reznor. Marilyn Manson got a lot of attention as being an influence on many of the shooters, but Kip was the only one that was really into him, but he really loved him and had lyrics from Marilyn Manson songs all over his bedroom framed, and lyrics from The Downward Spiral sort of written in pen on the wall. I bought the records that he was listening to at the time, and they are very much these sort of goth products. They are not particularly scary or violent, more like products created by the record industry, but Kip really believed them. Like he would sit in his bedroom and listen to these records, feeling like he was going insane and wanting to kill people. He really connected to these lyrics in a very real way.
CM: So the attraction for you is the belief ?
SdB: Yeah totally the belief.
CM: No matter what the belief is in.
SdB: Yeah no matter how corrupt it is. Whether for a hair gel, or for Tower Records, or whatever.
Yeah? I'm getting called.