Artnet has a great interview up with artist Sue de Beer. Part of it is excerpted below. I've written about her work here and here and am impressed by her smarts, as well as her courage in injecting schlocko, gross-out horror conventions into the by-now familiar vocabulary of art world transgressions. It's not the shock value that makes her work special (we had Chris Burden and Karen Finley for that), or the "low culture into high," but rather some combination of the two: a willingness to be scary and as declasse as a Wes Craven movie at the mall. After the excerpt, I have a few thoughts on the relationship of her work to recent, real life (mediated) horror.
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 doesn’t 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 book’s 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 wasn’t, you kind of know that too.

AFH: But isn’t 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 doesn’t really have any victims. So either you have victims with no killer, or a killer with no victims.

All this talk of stabbing and guts hanging out and our relationship to it isn't just relevant to the art world. I'm curious to know what de Beer thinks of the Nick Berg "beheading" video, which is riddled with discrepancies and seems to be some hillbilly's idea of a slasher movie. Art trumping life trumping art. (I mean, check out the plastic prison chairs in the photos below.) Even though it's in a macho, war context, it made me think of Heidi 2's "operating scene," here Heidi's mom teaches Heidi how to "self operate" and Heidi removes her own stomach. This collaborative project with Laura Parnes is the exception to de Beer's credo of "either you have victims with no killer, or a killer with no victims." Unless you read the stomach operation as a self-inflicted wound (i.e., the Heidis are one person) and not as one generation literally damaging the next. At any rate, there's theatrical slashing with no spraying blood, just like the Berg video; a body part is removed and shot close-up; no dubbed-in scream, though. Anyway, apologies to Sue and Laura for comparing their work to real life melodrama; current events are forcing us to think this way.

nick berg chair

abu ghraib chair

- tom moody 6-14-2004 8:09 pm

Sounds like you are pretty convinced that the Berg video is a hoax. I'm super sceptical about that...seems like wish-fulfilment (I don't mean on your part, but the existence of the hoax theory reads to me as an easy way out of the seeming impossibility/horror of the scenario). However, I am following you in the comparison of the imagery to that of Sue De Beer. One thing they both have in common is a kind of hermetic circularity. Violence that is meaningful as violence (and the Abu Ghraib photos fit this context as well). It's not "I killl you because you killed my brother", it's " I kill you to demonstrate that I can kill you." De Beer is post-Buffy in that the violence is its own end. It's not about saving the world or saving your friends (or your girl-back-home, Hi MOm!). It's about the thrill of exercising power, and the blank-yet-endorphinated buzz of touching death. I like the artnet interview with De Beer a lot.

"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."

This quote is really interesting to me, cause it presents some clues about our cultural fascination with teenagers: people who are old enough to articulate desire and experience sadism, yet not old enough to have 'distracting' investment in building something meaningful out of life. Who better to look death square in the eye? Buffy makes a big romantic narrative to deliver and buff-er this delectable mortality treat. But De Beer just lets you mainline the good stuff (another reason why art is better than TV). The nice thing about art, as opposed to military invasions and the penal system, is that we can agree to carve out a societal convention for puttering with these emotions that doesn't actually involve killing anybody.

NB: I also like that De Beer (in the interview) references my favourite piece of pre-teen girl fiction, Island of the Blue Dolphins, in which every single person except our plucky girl hero dies off and leaves her fending for herself. Damn fine survivalist fantasy.

- sally mckay 6-17-2004 8:31 am [add a comment]

Yes, I do think it's a hoax--not that Berg didn't die, or even get decapitated, just that I distrust the way this video says it happened and the media's completely uncritical response to that narrative. There's still a tendency to assume videos or photos are objective truth, and so as soon as they're disseminated various parties start claiming them as evidence. Whether the video is "true" or not, its message is something we already know, which is that certain violent elements want us out of Iraq (well, duh--and as you said, the simple message is "we can kill you") or that we need to suppress our own internal conversation about torture because our enemies are more implacable and mean than we are (which I don't agree with).

What isn't discussed is that it's first and foremost a video--a mediated thing as opposed to a real event with witnesses who can be questioned, etc. It's the ultimate artifact of propanganda, available online so the right can screech and the left can tut-tut. What also isn't discussed is the video's value as entertainment, which is where I think Sue de Beer comes in. She's been looking pretty squarely at the death-narratives that play out in plain view in our culture--I remember she was fascinated a few years back by Diesel's "dead teenagers" campaign, which were grim pictures of literally wasted youths used for ironic marketing. "Faces of death" tapes are a huge underground economy (whoops--my hits are about to go up). Yet when the Berg video comes out the pundits soberly discuss the "evidence" of a horrendous killing and never discuss it in the context of all this related pop-culture lore. We already know what the video wants us to think, what we should be asking is, which side's internalization of the snuff film is this?
- tom moody 6-18-2004 7:25 pm [add a comment]

Tom thanks for this - that's great analysis, and now I understand where you are coming from on the hoax thing. My take has been more like "we can look at the dehumanising of Iraqiis over and over, but the murder of a white American boy is so unthinkable that we have to declare it a hoax." Your thoughts makes much more sense.
- sally mckay 6-18-2004 8:24 pm [add a comment]

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