Too Much in the Sun

John Haber
in New York City

Sue de Beer: Black Sun

Sue de Beer makes videos as innocent, seductive, and dangerous as adolescence. They offer a refuge from the cold glare and headlong rush of a museum. They invite you to linger in comfort and to share in someone else's dreams. And you will—only to find yourself exposed to another's risks as well. More scary still, you will look back on the experience nostalgic for the dangers. Sue de Beer's Black Sun (Whitney Museum of American Art, 2005)

If that description pretty much sums up your memories of your own formative years, de Beer has taken them as her subject, with a sense of humor, but without apologies or illusions. She called one early work Dirty Realism. More recently, with Hans und Grete, she invokes the Columbine massacre. Now, in Black Sun, characters read trashy magazines, drink too much, and expose themselves in public. How fitting that it has a museum to itself at the Whitney Altria, a name hiding its roots in the tobacco industry.

Dreamers within a dream

On video, exposing oneself may come with the territory—or maybe not. The medium goes back to the bluntness of performance art, like Charlotte Moorman in her half-naked cello sonatas for Nam June Paik, and it extends to Madonna's leggy attempts at fine art with fashion accessories. However, those early videos put their own apparent naturalness on the spot, and Madonna has long since dissolved into her role play.

When de Beer looks at adolescence, she sees a time of trying on roles. A girl, along with an exceptionally cute pretend horse, dances to "You Can't Hurry Love." A couple play at ghosts, before one removes her sheet, her mask, and then everything but her underwear. A young woman pictures a ring or a pearl necklace and wonders if she recognizes herself. She does not dream of love but of being loved, of the power to turn another's love on and off with a word. Like every one of these role players, she is desiring the desires of others.

Most often, they find those others in narratives handed down from a culture too broad and perplexing even to merit the term shared. Hans und Grete joined the Brothers Grimm to violence retold endlessly in the media. In Black Sun, a woman walks the empty house, stairs, and locked room of horror films. A character's thoughts quote novels by Dennis Cooper. The work's title has been "pre-used" for porn and heavy-metal Web sites. Perhaps de Beer's creations are surfing them now.

Her fantasies of emerging desire matter because they do not cease with adolescence, just as a museum-goer gets to indulge under cover of darkness and art. She even calls a later video The Quickening. Nor do they cease with their fulfillment. Again and again, the characters in Black Sun put on eyeshades, lie down, and try to sleep. They dream of becoming dreamers within a dream.

The fantasies also have one questioning whose imagination lies behind the work of art. If Matthew Barney creates video as one extended male fantasy, with himself and a few pompom girls on center stage, de Beer's subject and object alike have a habit of offering themselves and then vanishing. Among all the other acts of self-exposure that never fully expose, they tempt one to identify the young women in Black Sun with each other—and with the artist.

An exhibition handout, its flowery cover page inscribed "My Daily Journal," adds to the confusion of voices and wishes. Marked "Do Not Touch," it purports to contain email between de Beer and the show's curator, Shamim Mormin. Along with a not implausible, tantalizingly incomplete account of the work's gestation, the writers share kisses, tears, "awesome" moments, lost loves, and a mix tape. I have no clue how much to believe, but reading definitely makes me desire Mormin's job—or perhaps the chance to replace a boyfriend who left after ten years. Then again, I can no longer know for certain whose dreams I desire myself.

Seducing the audience

Okay, I have already cheated you of your dreams. As part of the questioning, de Beer serves up not simply videos but installations. Given the "journal," perhaps I should say meta-installations. They echo the props, images, and voices on screen. They spotlight the fiction and its sources, and they do much of the work of seducing the audience. I mean both drawing one in and implicating one in their guilty pleasures.

Hans und Grete came disguised as a welcome respite from the 2004 Whitney Biennial. Had I moved through too many dark rooms and bright sensations? Had I stood in line for ten minutes to watch lights glitter off a private reflecting pool? Here the title and de Beer's room of bright colors promised a fairy-tale antidote to art-world sophistication. I could stretch out on animal pillows, amid mock-ups of guitars snazzier than my old Guild D-25. I could share quiet voices and the company of others.

Of course, the title, like the Bush foreign policy, remained in the original German, and de Beer's video had none of the children's innocence and plenty of their fears. The musical instruments belonged to the male experimentation on video and its wilder outbursts. The on-screen voices had a sordid tale to tell, and others left the room as confused as I. We also left happier, and that, too, unsettled me. Could I have grown so at ease with devastation?

Black Sun presents a still cozier environment. In Dark Hearts, another recent work on display at P.S. 1's "Greater New York 2005," one could climb behind the wheel of her teenager's pretend car. Here I had an entire branch of the Whitney to myself for ten minutes before another plumped down the darkness. I had two more bag sofas, in a room framed by a gabled, wood silhouette—perhaps the missing gingerbread house at last. I had entered past schematic, wood trees, covered in snow or in darkness. I had seen oversized photos of horses and cats.

As with a recent installation by Pipilotti Rist, gallery lighting and the semblance of a house convert video into a literal, figurative, and mental landscape. Even the handout has its seductions. It frames sophisticated communication with the breathlessness of girls after class and the pretense of a diary. On its inside cover, "This journal belongs to" invites one to add one's own name and address, before its voices return to the public connections of the Internet.

Again, the video changes everything, while the installation changes one's relationship to the moving images. One lies back in the stereotyped house of horrors, yet one more actor never able to fall asleep. One lies on black leather next to strangers, uncertain of their desires and not altogether willing to know. Not a single wall label states the length of the video, placing one in the fluid time scale of its dreams.

The seduction of explanation

Characteristically, de Beer makes video a physical presence as well as akin to photography's "Strange Magic." Two large screens side by side further multiply the images of desiring. At times they show the same image, at times paired alternatives, at times the slightly overlapping halves of a single room. I laughed as the dancer slid over to join the horse swaying his forelegs. So they do belong together. Could she take him with her into her space, or must she climb on her chair and dance alone?

These acts of self-reflection may not puzzle anyone for long. They are about trying on roles and living with the consequences, not deconstructing the self. I did not leave the Biennial ready to gun down my friends—or perhaps the curators. I did not leave Altria determined to take off my clothes in public, and few would care if I did. Each video's lasting disturbances indeed depend on a return to normality.

They even hold out a further seduction, an explanation for what has gone wrong. Again, better make that multiple explanations.

What brings to hand so many images of easy gratification, and what keeps them so fixedly out of reach? In the simplest explanation, the appropriations put it all down to mass culture, the usual suspect when it comes to sex and violence. Hans und Grete's had a special appeal at the 2004 Biennial, surrounded by the goth fad in art. That "journal" of de Beer's quotes A. S. Byatt: "life runs in very narrow stereotyped channels, until it is interrupted by accidents or visions." Visions, too, it seems, can run according to stereotype.

The narrative flow from innocence to experience accords nicely, too, with another fashionable interpretation of adolescent behavior. Psychologists have described risk taking as uneven mental and cultural development. Adult capabilities and opportunities arise before adult regulatory systems kick in. In other words, in the developing brain, the imagination races a step ahead of reality. It sounds rather like good art. In Byatt's terms, de Beer supplies the accidents and the visions and lets the stereotypes take care of themselves.

Paint it black

These explanations leave the superego in charge—or perhaps what Jacques Lacan would call the transcendental ego, the self who gets to leave the room and its fears behind. Black Sun, however, does not. It turns on the difficulty not just of acting safely on one's desires, but simply imagining them. The young woman who wants power over another's love cannot even decide on the gender of her ideal lover.

In the "journal," de Beer throws off several tentative titles for the video, but she leaves a lacuna precisely where she might have introduced "Black Sun." If psychoanalysis traditionally turns on reconstructing the gaps, an atypical analyst may supply one source. Julia Kristeva uses the same the title for her book on depression. (I doubt it, but I like to think that she is recalling Hamlet in his depression, "too much in the sun.") Kristeva describes melancholia as a loss of speech, but also an an overflowing of sensation and an overflowing of symbols from their familiar semiotic moorings. She connects it to desiring and to female subjectivity, which she sees unfolding in its own sense of time—through repetition, gestation, cycles, and "eternity."

No, I do not understand Kristeva either. However, she does remind me of the intimate and fluid melancholy of de Beer's video. Psychoanalysis also suggests another reason for her interest in young adulthood. In psychoanalysis, the adult self contains everything from infant attachments to paternal authority. It surely has room for de Beer's adolescents, with their equal fondness of lace, hypertext, child toys, and grown-up sex.

In that fluid melancholy, Black Sun marks a real advance for de Beer. Each earlier video installation, like Hans und Grete, moved more or less linearly from seduction to transgression. In Black Sun, one sits from the start on dark cushions. As with a video from the 1960s by Alfred Leslie, a division into three chapters may nod to an older disruption of linear logic, the French New Wave. (And the latest from Alfred Leslie, of naked women created on computer, could truly merit the association with a black sun.) As ever, cultural appropriations may lie everywhere, but the video comes out of anything but the news.

More than any previous work, Black Sun allows laughter to temper emotion, and it also takes one right to the threshold of adulthood. It moves, in the leaps and circles of a dream, from the haunted house, the girl with her necklace, and the actor in a horse costume to the stripper. It encompasses an older but still attractive woman and the uncertain destination of a journey by air.

It allows a woman more than enough roles—desiring, desired, vulnerable, slutty. By picturing so many dreamers and so many dreams, it makes one question who is ever desiring or the desired. It makes me as well feel too much in the sun.

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"Black Sun" by Sue de Beer ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art at Altria through June 17, 2005.


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