New York

Sue de Beer

Whitney Museum of American Art at Altria

Indeterminacy—spatial, temporal, and, above all, emotional—is the central motif of Sue de Beer’s absorbing two-channel video installation, Black Sun, 2004–2005. While it continues the exploration of adolescent desire and frustration that’s earned de Beer a reputation as a preeminent auteur of teen angst, the new work also suggests an artist who is herself maturing, moving away from the often melodramatic physical abjection of her earlier works toward a more nuanced investigation of psychological alienation.

As in previous works, the winkingly gothic milieu of Black Sun extends into the three dimensions of an installation. De Beer has filled the entirety of Altria’s modest gallery space with a pink structure that—in a metaphor for her overall approach—suggests both dollhouse and haunted mansion. Shown on a pair of hanging screens in its all-black interior (complete with matching shag rug and extra-large beanbag chairs, natch), the video opens, in the first of the work’s many operative mirrorings, outside what appears to be a maquette of the very same structure, bathed in tart green and red light. The scene then shifts and we see a girl in a nightgown moving tentatively across the purposefully artificial set toward a door behind which a maternal figure sleeps. It’s a sequence that will be repeated, with slight variations, in three interconnected “acts,” each designed to track a formative stage in the protagonist’s journey toward individuation.

Throughout the work, such establishing shots of portended confrontation between Mother and Daughter are alternated with skillfully orchestrated moments of action and of interiority. Utilizing techniques that suggest the loopings and enfoldings of Doug Aitken’s multiscreen videos, de Beer creates intricate rhythms with the twinned screens (sometimes using them to explicitly double each other, at others dividing one image between the two) to weave several overlapping narrative threads, featuring two similar-looking actresses, into an elaborate whole.

First, a slide show sequence pictures objects—porcelain kitties, girlish bracelets, nylons—that describe a trajectory of femininity accompanied by the young girl’s reading of a diaristic passage on the interrelated anxieties of memory and identity (taken, like all the work’s words apart from its intertitles, from Dennis Cooper’s fifth novel, Period [2000]). We then see her testing her nascent sexuality by doing an awkwardly sensuous Flashdance routine with that ur-symbol of masculinity, a horse—here sublimated within the form of a stuffed animal that comes to life in her bedroom. In the video’s teenage segment, the girl (now played by the slightly older of the two actresses) repairs to a creepy fake graveyard where she describes, in voice-over, a desire for magical control over love as she and her boyfriend, dressed in sheets and skeleton masks, drink and fumble with each other. Later the girl, alone in the plywood cemetery, does a matter-of-fact striptease down to her very grown-up black lingerie. And in the final, most oblique sequence, all three moments of the girl’s development seem to fuse: Now dressed like a young professional departing on a flight, the of this last episode has a kind of wistful world-weariness that signifies maturity. As she eats an airline dinner and dons an eyeshade, her doppelgänger finally reaches the precinct of the maternal room, symbolically becoming her own Mother.

Like Kristeva’s meditation on melancholia referenced by its title, Black Sun confronts issues of identity, memory, and longing. Stylistically, however, it probably has more in common with the phrase’s literary source, a line by the eccentric nineteenth-century French poet Gerard de Nerval (“My sole star is dead—and my constellated lute / Bears the Black Sun of Melancholia”). Nerval described his verse as the product of a “supernaturalistic” state of reverie, writing that “Our dreams are a second life”—a sentiment that might just as well serve as a motto for the engrossing “supernaturalism” of de Beer’s work, and its use of uncanny distortions of time and place to evoke the anxious process of adolescent psychosexual awakening.

Jeffrey Kastner