Author: Brandon Stosuy
EMERGE monograph 'Sue de Beer', 2005
5'4" and a Black Corvette
En route to Skylight books in Los Angeles, Dennis Cooper took me past Glenn Danzig's Los Feliz gulag. More akin to Burroughs' post-Big Apple Kansas homestead than Ann Rice's Victorian New Orleans mansion, the lack of looming gates, Wiccan altars, Satan-boy props, and gothic spires for ghoulish Jersey-born punk-ass Elvis-crooner made it a humanizing Cribs-styled tour-de-force. Kinda surprising, really, for the legendary vocalist of The Misfits, Samhein, and an eventual solo career, a guy best known as the angsty headshot in the shadowy sacrifice-a-busty-woman video for his biggest hit, "Mother."
To this day, he supports the equivalent of The Undertaker's musculature on a 5'2" Prince-sized frame and considers himself the "backbone" of the so-called "mosh movement." More realistically, he's an eternal teenager with a black hearse: This summer a video began circulating on the Internet showing the Rollins-in-Goth-clothing getting cold-cocked by the angry vocalist of a spurned opening act - It's like watching some kid getting his assed kicked outside the lunchroom. Add up these strength/flaws and you have a keen roll model for teens of all ages: somebody punk enough to admire, cartoonish enough to mock.
In high school, coming across The Misfits logo - "The Crimson Ghost," a smiling, hooded skeleton -- spray-painted on the side of the cranberry processing plant in my hometown made me cry. It was a powerful grail amid the bent mailboxes, horseflies, blueberries and pine. I imagined the author was some kindred spirit wearing a torn Sonic Youth tee over perfectly mucked brown corduroys and ratty sneakers, a girl who stuck Reynolds Wrap on the end of her stereo's antenna to pick up the distant college station, pulling codes from the air, rocking out as best she could to a distant, rattled "Teenage Riot."
Months after my brief visit to Danzig's pad, I discovered Dennis made sure Sue de Beer walked by the Satanic one's home when she was in town, too. The brilliance of her work is a crystalline lodging of this shared, near-religious enthusiasm within a complex practice that channel surfs between Paul McCarthy, Vito Acconci, Nan Goldin, and Headbangers Ball. As she put it when we discussed Throbbing Gristle, Vienna Actionism, and Marilyn Manson's essentialized pop take on that hybrid, "I want to be 14 and on acid and go to a Viennese Actionist performance. Lets build a time machine!"
A number of Sue de Beer's videos - Disappear Hear, Hans & Grete, The Dark Hearts, Black Sun - are jam-packed with submerged subcultural symbols because nervous, restless outsider teens and their fabulous, crushworthy inventions are at the center of her craft. In The Dark Hearts, star-crisscrossed teens in a toy-box town locate an ideal partner and aim for a clandestine make-out session in a pink Mustang. As it should be, the aforementioned Misfits logo is featured prominently on the dash, a subtle little wink to other ex/current disengaged teens. When you watch the piece in a gallery, you get to sit in a pink car, too: The potentially powerful Misfits skull is therefore posted inside a gallery, a white-washed space that lacks real fireworks and those awkward first pecking. (In true teen misfit fashion, her early Valle Export/Lacan-style video "Making Out With Myself" shows De Beer swapping passionately nervous spit with herself.)
On one level, punk's always been about uniforms. Throughout her oeuvre de Beer's understandably concerned with wardrobe: A misplaced rock tee or lame pair of pants are the easiest way to spot a wannabe. Of her video stars, only Mimi Lestor and Julien Orlow, the couple from The Dark Hearts, wore their street clothes for the production. Otherwise, she collaborated with the teens on a fantasy/reality hybrid. "When I was dressing Lena Hergessell for Black Sun I brought her dance stuff out and she looked really disappointed," she said. "Then I asked her to combine it with her own clothes and she came up with this combination that was like her uber-self - because she had this fantasy part to her wardrobe - pink legwarmers and a pink dance skirt, and then whatever, her favorite things from her actual outfit. Then she got excited and took home the pink legwarmers she thought were so terrible."
In The Dark Hearts, Lestor's pink skirt and Wizard of Oz purse work on a number of levels, but Orlow's sartorial choice is less obvious than just some teen in black. Besides dark, gothy hair, spiked necklace, and black boot/pants ensemble, he's wearing a Murderdolls t-shirt. The Murderdolls are a gory collaboration between Slipknot guitar Joey Jordison and Static-X guitarist Tripp Eisen: Think nu-metal mixed with Cradle of Filth. During production, Orlow and De Beer had a discussion about Black Sabbath versus the Murderdolls" in which he claimed Black Sabbathıs "hippy music" and not "evil." The band does a suitably dark cover of Billy Idol's "White Wedding." Is this the song in his head when he and Lestor exchange silent vows? How does he hold his head at Ozfest differently than when in this car with this girl? If he made a mix tape, what would he put on it?
Additionally, a "weirdly blank" poster of Murderdoll's guitarist Joey Jordison decorates his fantastical sunflower yellow bedroom. Orlow took the poster home after production: "I posterized these photos of members of the Murderdolls covered in blood and dirt or whatever sweat after a show," De Beer says. "I looked them up after casting Julien in the role because he showed up to the audition in those clothes." (Here her 14-year-old actor created a Misfit/Murderdoll palimpsest, basically a silent cross-generational nod.)
Nowadays, uber teens are everywhere in fashion and on the web; blubbering tween romantics can log-onto a punk-porn website like Suicide Girls - a 'community' for fans of nude dyed-haired, tattooed young women - and locate any number of fantasy neighbors along with list of favorite bands, artists, books, and sexual positions. But this isn't the world of The Dark Hearts. "The Suicide Girls are all about sexy posturing and fronting," she says. "The Dark Hearts are all about scarily exposing secret parts of themselves when they expose their desire, and then being happy to find out that the other person isn't going to laugh or treat them badly, but will expose themselves back. The Dark Hearts is kind of about the perfect moment that almost never happens, but when it does it's just always with you."
Cobbling an alternative universe, De Beer houses her work in rooms with shag carpets, comfortable beanbags. "I think that benches are uncomfortable and too severe for what is going on in my work," she says. And as soon as she gets enough money, she plans to build an entire house, a kind of clubhouse utopia. "My kids have a fucked up universe to deal with, and I can't just stick them on some austere bench to figure their shit out. That wouldn't be very loving of me." To help weather the storm, she's also chiseled toy houses and sound-stage skies, invulnerable spaces of wire and string, lands of doubles, saturated ennui, and phony high-school shootings: It's constructed singularly enough that these kids can inhabit it by themselves, but lodged inside the narratives are these undercover clues for those who can pick them out, connecting their own epiphany to her looping universe. Which is why the musical references need to be dead on: "To me it feels like this, you are a kid, you buy a record. You decide to kill yourself, but then listen to the record really loudly instead."
When you're a lonely teen, you wish like Dorothy that one click of your scuffed Doc Martens would conjure a different, non-b&w geography where you could place your most precious things. Sue De Beer's videos offer that space with both complexity and tenderness, and even when it gets rough, her subjects needn't worry about pulling back the curtain only to discover a sniveling poseur.