Sue de Beer has learned macabre lessons from slasher films, horror
movies, goth and other blood-soaked genres that give voice to tender and volcanic teen-age yearning. In her films, sullen, vulnerable adolescents become caught up in grotesque iconography culled from cultures dark corners. She magnifies their effects by projecting them in rooms decorated with enormous candy-colored stuffed-animals, whose sweet plush bodies provide spots in which to nestle, but no escape from the creepiness she creates on screen.
In 1999, after earning an MFA at Columbia University, De Beer collaborated with Laura Parnes to create the unauthorized sequel to Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy's Heidi video. Kelley and McCarthy turned the saccharine yarn into an orgy of incest, cruelty and filth. But in the De Beer and Parnes version, the sadistic Grandfather has gone soft. He is
washed-up and needy, while Heidi and her daughter reign.
At the Whitney Biennial, New York-based De Beer exhibited Hans und Grete, her single-channel video installation from 2002, in which she interwove references to the 1970s German revolutionary gang Baader-Meinhof, the teen-age shooters in Littleton, Colorado and Nightmare on Elm Street. Like all of her films, there is no little-death to provide release, in Hans und Grete, only longing and listening to the cries of lonely, cursed kids.
Ana Finel Honigman: Do you think deconstructing horror, like explaining a joke, kills its impact?
Sue de Beer: For me, if you stab something really hard with a knife, and make it bleed, you know, for art or for whatever, that should have enough impact on whoever is watching in whatever context. If it doesnt have an impact, then it is probably just crappy.
AFH: How aggressive should art be in order to have an impact?
SdB: For me, sometimes stabbing something can have more impact if you ease up. Take for example, the photo I made of Sasha La Rosa. I photographed her bored and smoking with her intestines hanging out. It is a really soft romantic image, and you know she is alive, so you can take the time to check out her intestines without being too scared. But while you are doing that and enjoying how beautiful she looks, the impact hits. Your pleasure is in examining her guts. Maybe the scary part is in knowing that you want to see her cut open. Discovering the depth of your curiosity produces the impact.
AFH: Is it curiosity or schadenfreude? Isn't the pleasure a mixture of sympathy for the victim and empathy for the killer?
SdB: Yes. I was just reading a Slavoj Zizek essay on Lolita because I am making this new piece about desire, the act of desiring someone or something. In the essay, Zizek describes the moment when Humbert realizes Lo's mother is dead and Lo is his, as the pivotal scene in which Nabokov implicates the reader in Humbert's pedophilia. Because we want to know what will happen, we have to develop an empathetic relationship with Humbert and Zizek argues that part of the books power is in welcoming the reader to join in the crime. Nabokov allows everyone to be the pervert. We want him to succeed.
AFH: So in making your work, you are working for us?
SdB: Well, I guess the difference is that in my work, no one ever gets anywhere. It is all fait accompli, to be a little bit French about it. If the event was going to work out in my work, you would kind of know it beforehand. If it wasnt, you kind of know that too.
AFH: But isnt chilly suspense the most important part of horror?
SdB: Perhaps, but my work is a portrait of a moment in time with no beginning and no end. It is of a situation that just exists. You can't really have empathy for the killer because there is no killer. There is only death and a body. Or sometimes the opposite is true, like in Hans und Grete.
There, there is a boy with black hair who wants to be strong. He wants to be a tough violent kid. He wants to be a killer but he doesnt really have any victims. So either you have victims with no killer, or a killer with no victims.
AFH: Which makes sense since horror usually stems from curdled or suppressed desires, right?
SdB: I like the word curdled and I am obsessed with desire right now. I read a lot about this subject when I was killing people all the time. I wanted to try and figure out why I kept returning to that...activity.
AFH: What did you learn?
SdB: The best definition I found of horror was in Kristeva's Power of Horror, where she talks about horror being about a sense of displacement, of something being in an improper context.
AFH: How is an art-context improper? I would think art is the best, safest, sanctified forum for anti-social urges.
SdB: Sure and a good example of that would be Robert Gober putting a sink drain into a hairy leg. It is so scary when he does that but death and horror are really separate to me. Death can be tied into melancholia, which is about pleasure. It feels so good to feel so bad. But horror doesn't necessarily have to be about death.
AFH: Death is universal but horror is subjective. After all, who is Freddy Kruger, if not the creature from our individual subconscious coming to get us in our dreams, where we cant sublimate or repress our authentic desires?
SdB: Yes, it is all about desire! Lately, I have been talking a lot with Whitney Biennial curator Shamim Momin about desire. We recently confessed to each other a long list of pre-teen girl fiction we read when we were like 11 or something. We tried to figure out the links between all the corny books. It was so hardcore. And it was really interesting to do that because I had just come out of this full-on teenage-secret-desire Freddy Kruger marathon. When I was pulling out of it I re-understood some of that stuff I was looking at was about desire. So, Shamim and I moved the timeline back 4 years to look at desire in this other popular art form - the corny pre-teen girl book. There, there was a similar drive towards understanding the unknown.
AFH: Freddy is very Freudian but where are those themes in girly teen-fiction?
SdB: Well, we defined the genre as 'survivalist pre-teen girl literature' because a common theme in those books went something like this: you are a pre-teen or teen-age girl, something really strange happens that gets rid of all of your family (like you are abandoned on an island with only dolphins to play with, or you are abandoned in a parking lot with only 30 dollars and no parents, or you runaway from home or are abducted somehow), then you don't think that much about your family and cry a lot but you soon get really, really into the mechanics of survival. You build a house out of palm fronds or learning how to hitch-hike or something.
AFH: Hitchhiking is usually bad for survival. Look how Texas Chainsaw Massacre turned out.
SdB: Well, they might have been wrong about a few things but the self-sufficiency part is so cool to read about. But the crazy thing is that
a necessary part of the book having your whole family lost or killed off.
AFH: Why do you think horror appeals so strongly to teens, who tend to be reckless and blas about their own safety?
SdB: Because when you are a teenager you leave a sexy corpse! Just kidding. But I do think that the dead body is a rock star for teenagers. If you die when you are 17, everyone cares. They cry and feel bad, because it is outside the ordinary run of things. If you die when you are 60, then you have might have done something, like have had a rich and fulfilling life, or have written a good book, or had a family that loved you, or someone that loved you but you have to work for it more. You have to toil for meaning. Death is less scary when you are a kid because you don't analyze it so much. Your death would never be meaningless because someone will always care. I think when you are older, it is harder to shake the secret fear that no one is really going to care that much.
AFH: Do you think there is a horror narrative dominant in all of us?
SdB: Maybe. It isn't that there is a universal horror narrative but we return over and over to these extreme situations, like imaging your own death, because then, for a moment or two, you have the vertigo of posting yourself against the Void. In pre-teen survivalist-girl literature, you do that through developing weird survival skills. In the Horror movie genre, you do it by escaping Freddy. Sadly, though if you watched all your friends die one by one, like in Nightmare on Elm Street, your whole life would be defined by the Void. I guess you cant really escape. Right?
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine.