PRINT April 2011


Sue de Beer’s The Ghosts

Sue de Beer, The Ghosts, 2011, color two-channel video, pillows, carpet, screen. Installation view, Park Avenue Armory, New York. Photo: James Ewing.

NO ONE EVER SEEMS TO EXIST entirely in the present in the videos of Sue de Beer. From the eighteenth-century Puritan hunched over a 1960s Brion Gysin Dreamachine in The Quickening, 2006, to the teen rocker daydreaming about a future high school student’s musical reveries in Hans and Grete, 2002–2003, her characters live in a kind of temporal purgatory. It therefore should have seemed almost inevitable that de Beer would make a work called The Ghosts. Commissioned by Art Production Fund and debuted at New York’s Park Avenue Armory in February, the two-channel video installation is her most substantial project since 2007’s Permanent Revolution and preceded “Depiction of a Star Obscured by Another Figure,” an exhibition of sculptural pieces at Marianne Boesky Gallery in Chelsea that closed last month. The plot of the video, as usual, is sketchy. A hypnotist (played by artist Jutta Koether) tries to help a fretful Wall Street type (veteran indie-rock star Jon Spencer) bring nebulous memories of a lost love into focus; meanwhile, Claire (Claire Buckingham), a mystery girl, attracts the attention of an odd-looking record-store clerk named Chris (Chris James). He pays her a visit, but she leaves quickly for an appointment with the hypnotist. Claire places a call to Spencer’s character; Chris eventually undergoes hypnosis too; and it’s never clear whether the three patients have any actual history together or whether the hypnotist is connecting them in another dimension.

But the story doesn’t really matter. In fact, of the multiple hallmarks of de Beer’s prior work in The Ghoststhe abruptly halting sound track, the teenage bedroom, the green and pink lighting gels on seemingly permanent loan from Kenneth Anger, the white-sock fetishism—the most essential may be her references to cinema’s predecessors. As in Black Sun, 2005; The Dark Hearts, 2003–2004; Disappear Here, 2004; and Hans and Grete, the video’s two-screen projection conjures the twinned images of nineteenth-century stereoscopes. Likewise, the sculpture Untitled (disappear here), 2011, installed in the room adjacent to the one where The Ghosts was being screened, is modeled on the praxinoscope. Another motion-picture prototype, that device animates still images by spinning them on a cylinder with a mirrored dodecahedron in the center; de Beer’s large sculpture, however, stood dormant, papered with icy landscapes that connoted glacial stasis rather than kinesis. These allusions to pre-nickelodeon optical amusements are a technological analogue to her characters’ own escapist displacements of time.

Another component to the armory presentation was Depiction of a Star Obscured by Another Figure, 2011, a large, backlit screen with geometric cutouts displayed across the hall from The Ghosts. The object is similar to one in the hypnotist’s office, where it alternately blocks and filters the colored theatrical lights placed behind it, suggesting the varying permeability of the solicitors’ consciousnesses. Its inclusion was effective in tandem with The Ghosts, as a relic from a dream or a talisman caught between real time and cinema time, but the piece lost its totemic power when separated from the video at Boesky. The praxinoscope sculpture moved there as well, sandwiched between Depiction and a smaller perforated screen, also backlit, that incorporates a double-headed eagle. There was also a ninety-two-second video, Silver and Gold, 2011, composed of sundry images, including the praxinoscope’s snowy mountains, now set in motion. Presented with a flicker effect, the video was intended to produce afterimages on the retina—another kind of ghost, and an ephemeral correlative to the shadows formed on the wall by the theatrical lights and the screens—but its brevity and tiny projection size rendered it less than effectual. The bare, white-cube setting also worked against the show’s intent to trigger fleeting, Ghosts-like memories or hypnotic delirium, particularly in comparison with the effect of the fanciful antique carvings and Tiffany-lit dark-wood ambience of the armory. There, visitors viewed The Ghosts while reclining on pillows, reflexively mirroring the supine pose of the hypnotist’s patients.

“Depiction” was de Beer’s first exhibition to be dominated by sculptural work rather than video, but it is The Ghosts that truly represents a step forward. For all its echoes of her prior work, it’s far more assured, both technically and thematically. Previously, de Beer’s identification with punk or goth teenagers linked her own developmental phase as an artist (and the videos’ rough edges) to adolescence itself. Slinking through the makeshift record store in Wayfarer shades and tonguing a cherry-red lollipop to the strains of the Cure, Claire may come off as Lolita by way of John Hughes, but de Beer’s stand-in is now Koether, who proceeds from the other side of teenhood’s looking glass, inducing a mesmeric state where “time collapses down to nothing.”

Alan Licht is a musician, writer, and curator based in New York.