TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT January 2004

TEEN ANGLE: THE ART OF SUE DE BEER

Witnessing one of Sue de Beer’s goth girls intone I’m going to erase myself and you’re going to find me everywhere, anyone might consider such states of mind a recent phenomenon—psychic rumblings “explaining” Columbine or Lee Malvo. Yet America has long trafficked in the gothic, been intimate with suicide, doom, and destruction. Long before Poe drugged the consciousness with haunted narratives of the nothingness residing at the cold, dark heart of things, and before Hawthorne allegorized the civil state as Dr. Rappaccini keeping his child alive by rearing her on poison, Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards put the populace in the hands of an angry God, spidery sinners dangling between heaven and the ready fires of hell. Today, television necromancer John Edward may try to provide solace instead of burning brimstone, but let’s not forget he’s allowing anyone who wishes to communicate with the dead: The medium is the message, and the message is we’re all caught crossing over, in between. And if you’re still not convinced, consider the scholarship of Vampire Lectures author Laurence Rickels, who has augured the erotic, psychic, and social hellmouth potential of the trans-, which America has shifted into overdrive as an ontological raison d’être: Trans-Am.

In the lovely closing moment of Sue de Beer’s most recent video, The Dark Hearts, 2003, a girl in the driver’s seat picks up a gloomy boy from his house for a runaway spin to a blue-screen make-out glen. The goth kiddo Adonis takes off his studded and dangling-chain leather collar and puts it around the girl’s neck; she takes her double-stranded necklace of fake, pearly beads and embraces his neck with it. They daintily peck each other. A skull decal looks out at the boy from the passenger-side dashboard. The horror? The horror is the world they live in, which necessitates, instead of diary keeping, making “morgue entries” to figure out their lives. This is the world that’s been left to them: darknesses transacting in between boy parts and girl parts, in between loving and leaving, in between teen loneliness and adult existence.

De Beer’s teens resonate with those night shades created by the twentieth-level wizard and theoretician of the in-between as a state of being, Joss Whedon, the brilliant maestro of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He found in Buffy and the Scooby gang the fittest embodiments for the tumult of nascent adulthood and (as the show and its characters grew) for the brutality of living in the world, where people die or stop loving or disappear or change in ways never thought possible, where the Scoobys came to understand, as they shape-shifted into their adult selves, that the true horror isn’t anything outside but the fractal gruesomeness of dealing with personal demons, psychic slaying often done alone.

De Beer reckons with what it would mean to engage much of the complexity of the show’s feminist philosophy lessons and still do something different—using the teenager as both the site of her interests and as her non-site (since non-sites’ out-of-contextness situates uncertainty). In her previous photographic and video work, she’s played with the teen demotic idiom of horror and gore films, video games, and death metal while skillfully acknowledging artmeisters of such gooey, unstable territories, namely Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy; but she laces her acknowledgment with the angel dust of the feminine and amps up the guys’ contingent vulnerability. An early video, Loser, 1997, shows a girl—psychic snapshot of the artist as nerd—seeming to hold her breath, tension created by the not breathing as well as by the disconcerting uncanniness of her look (achieved by the weirdly simple device of having shot herself while she hung upside down—hair tightly wound so as not to spoil the effect—but showing herself right side up). Constricting breathing can heighten orgasm, but in a more directly autoerotic self-portrait de Beer French-kisses a static but blankly blinking video image of herself (Making Out with Myself, 1997), which sounds straightforward enough but becomes stranger and stranger the longer it’s watched: Am I you? Are you me? Is there a way out of the whirlpool of the self? Narcissus fell in love with his own reflected image; de Beer images the love-fall into the self and its infinite allegorical (video) loop. Later, she even did time collaborating with Laura Parnes on an unauthorized sequel to McCarthy and Kelley’s Heidi, 1992 (Heidi 2, 1999–2000). More recently, in a suite of photo works from 1999–2001, de Beer placed herself, at times maimed, bleeding, and on the run, in large photographic “grabs” from horror video games. No matter the strengths and graces of any of these works, they seem like test drives for her Transel and Gretel, Hans und Grete, 2002–2003.

Guitar solos in bedrooms, tedium in the classroom, and ritual sacrifices in the woods make up most of the “action” in Hans und Grete, in which de Beer deploys crucial, intelligent fictive and “real” examples of teen ontology for her own purposes, shifting even the resonances of her video’s title. The two Grimm kids have been split into two pairs—Kip and Kathleen, Seth and Sean—but are played by only two actors. Abstracted, the witch has been transformed into loneli- ness, her gingerbread cottage—simultaneously a lure, a reprieve from hungers, and a trap—into the distraction of sex. Hans und Grete, like Warhol’s Chelsea Girls (1966), is a double projection, but where Warhol worked with actual groovy twentysomethings (hanging out, waiting, getting fucked up, fucking) as a way of tracing the erotic and political consequence of now, de Beer gazes at teens, fictionalized but emotionally raw, to engage now’s affect and mood—trapped in school, testing any way of escape (music, sex, suicide, drugs, mayhem), figures of the parental present in the shadows. Both artists eschew moralizing and pay keen attention to casting, valuing being over acting—not that it’s easy to separate the one transmuting into the other and back. Whatever her works’ antecedents may be in portraying imaginary teenage wonder and trauma—Harmony Korine’s cat killers from Gummo; A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger turning a bed into a vortex of annihilating disappearance; Tomb Raider’s collapsing of mental and representational space; Blair Witch’s haunted woods; Dennis Cooper’s lost muse George Miles’s Hamlet-like poetries of indecision—de Beer’s trying to figure out what relation these fictions bear to (or what effect they have on) the actual: the pulverizing nonfiction of Kip Kinkle’s engulfing, disruptive sadness and of Ulrike Meinhof’s unnecessary demise. De Beer’s results unsettle: She pares away until her spooky content reveals the natural spookiness of being in the world. At one point in Hans und Grete, the camera travels through a woods at dusk, and the effect is kaleidoscopic and disorienting, anamorphic, as the woods folds into itself. The only sound is of birds and wind, from the Nintendo 64 game Corker’s Bad Fir Day, warping nature itself into the sign of everything against nature. It’s the bramble of existence and it’s a nightmare.

Hans und Grete opens with two pairs of feet, dirty socks on, friskily mingling, at the end of a bed, midfuck, a scene soon juxtaposed with an endlessly spurting cock, fake as its unbelievable load; it ends with a girl in her bedroom, alone. Despite a script made up of various appropriated texts, what holds attention isn’t “action” (narrative, plot) but visual derangement and emotionality. De Beer takes full advantage of the unnerving discontinuity of where her dual projections meet: Projected in a corner (punished dummkopf’s position), the video creates bodies impossibly collapsing into themselves or reveals the cracks in the constructed mask of the self the face presents to the world. The gorgeous loners attempt to articulate through pauses and aphasic gaps as much as words their individual plights, but their visages—split by the dual video projection’s seam (and seeming)—reveal the wounded sinthome joining the visually dissimilar pairs of protagonists (goth versus prep rocker), played by Travis Jeppesen and Lena Lauzemis. Everyone in the film is thinking about what they’re doing or supposed to do and who they are, and they find they’re in every way “other”—the creature reality. No fashionable reserve, no cool distancing, de Beer’s generous gift of emotional honesty, as in the best songs of Will Oldham or Chan Marshall, makes the project project, all the while featuring anti- and supernatural homemade artifice as structuring ground. At times staring out blankly and at other times speaking in voice-over as he performs some private ritual with a hunting knife and a stuffed dog while smoking a cigarette, Kip declares: “People can leave, die, disappear, run away, you know, whatever, but you can never be completely rid of a person because there’s always something that proves them to you again. It’s like there are invisible connections that exist between you and every person you’ve ever met. That keeps pulling you back together again forever—and you know, you can’t change that.”

De Beer’s use of decor somewhat lightens the proceedings: A raunchy, ornamental gnome stands with buttocks bared until Seth smashes him to bits with his guitar; a bed headboard displays “Kitty,” sometimes in reverse cursive; stuffed and ceramic animals witness most of the teens’ goings-on. There’s as much humor as poignance when Seth announces his plans to become a supreme being of the recording studio: “I mean, you know, there are some guys who are just cut out for that. You know, you’ve got people like, uh, Morrison, Hendrix, Robert Plant, Jagger, probably to a lesser extent somebody like Scott Weiland, you know, the guy from the Stone Temple Pilots. But I mean, like, you know, the thing is when you see somebody like that, who just . . . with that sort of star quality, you just know it. And it probably has less to do with talent than just the fact that these people just radiate this sort of magnetism that the world can’t resist.” De Beer shows Seth posing, picking up his guitar, and rocking out in a black hair-rocker wig while his girlfriend, in a baby-blue T-shirt, lounges on her bed. De Beer juxtaposes the couple with goth angel Kathleen making music alone in her room. Boys announce things in ways girls don’t or usually aren’t encouraged to. Seth can enunciate his rock-god lineage; Kathleen might be channeling Kathleen Hanna, Siouxsie Sioux, or even Meinhof but declaims nothing, even if the entire sequence is called, in an intertitle, “Kathleen’s 8-Track Demo.” Only after this does Seth get to rock out by himself: He plays a riff and says it’s what we’ll remember.

Of course, what’s telling is that it’s Kathleen’s demo, not Seth’s, that we hear in the film, a woman’s voice singing her rockin’ heart out. De Beer proves herself enraptured by such difference and at a time when such issues, some would argue, are becoming obsolete, “merely” electronic (which would be when it’s most crucial to think through the difference): She closes the video, crossing over and in between the teen male and female pleasures and burdens of living and dreaming, with a juxtaposition of some of the possible and historical outcomes of how each gender deals with the unbearable lightness of being and how the culture at large incorporates the dealings. Shorthand it by saying it’s Charles Manson versus Sylvia Plath, but less sensational and more quotidian, homely. (I’m tempted to suggest some of the consequences could be allegorized in the move from D&D to video gaming: the imaginary constantly exteriorized—digital manipulations instantly more “productive” than throwing a twenty-sided die and waiting for the dungeon master’s reading—leading somewhere not simply good.) With an obviously fake gun, Kip takes target practice in the air. De Beer cuts between him alone with his gun in his room and dummy figures seated in a classroom. A clock ticks. Dried blood stains a windowsill. Gunfire. The dummies are shown blown away, piled in corners of the classroom. Cut to: Sean with a fake but pulsing pregnant stomach. Her voiceover: “You can’t sit around forever waiting to be rescued because it’s never going to happen. No person’s ever going to save you, not ever. . . . I keep all my secrets to myself.” She gives a lit cigarette to her stuffed bear to drag on. She discusses the option of suicide but thinks that even if you kill yourself, you hang around, “watching everyone forget that you were ever alive.” It all closes with Sean alone but not quite suicidal: “Personally, I’m not into it. But that’s just me. I think I’ve always been pretty afraid of being alone.”

The world’s loss and confusion ensorcelled in girls and boys in rooms. Teenagers may prove the richest embodiments of “between” states or of sexual and psychic unruliness, but if you think their turmoil is any less real than adults’, you’ll miss the haunted beauty of it all. The film keeps cutting back to the outside of a nowhere little prop house. Rinky-dink music plays. It’s the world’s address, but no one’s really at home.

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.